Jonas Carpignano has become known for a particular type of naturalism born from observing – and then depicting –  life in contemporary Calabria, specifically in the coastal town of Gioia Tauro, known as an  ‘Ndrangheta mob hotbed, in a trilogy that started with “Mediterranea,” which won the Critics Week Grand Prize in 2015, followed by “A Ciambra,” and more recently “A Chiara.”

In his latest work the titular teenager, Chiara, gradually comes to discover that her close-knit family has ties to organized crime. The potent pic, in which Carpignano takes his signature slice-of-life style to a new level, won Best European Film in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, plays this week at the Zurich Film Festival, and will soon play at the New York Film Festival, before being released in the U.S. by Neon. Carpignano spoke to Variety about how he elicited such vivid performances from his non-professional actors, starting with the film’s protagonist Swamy Rotolo, and how shooting during the pandemic helped achieve more intimacy on set. Excerpts.

By now, it’s no exaggeration to say that you’ve created a world. Or rather you’ve managed to capture a Calabrian universe that seems so real, it’s hard to believe it’s being acted out, and by non-professionals to boot. How do you do it?

Over the years living in Gioia Tauro it’s really been quite easy to blur the boundary between work and friendship, so to say. Meaning that the pressure is off. When we are working together there is never this feeling that ‘I am in front of this director’ and ‘I need to act and turn it on.’ That they [the actors] are going to be judged in any way for what they are doing.

I am able to create such a safe space because we know each other so well before we even make the film. Really we are a group of people jumping in and looking to do the exact same thing. Swami, I’ve known since she was nine. And her family, [the Rotolo family] I’ve known for just as long. I first wrote the treatment in 2015. So over the years I’ve been able to insert some things from her real life into the script, so that the character becomes more like her. Even though obviously she’s not part of a Mafia family

Tell me about how the story originated

The jumping off point for me was that living in Gioia Tauro for ten years I’ve seen families where people’s fathers have gone on the run (from the law). I’ve seen families where people have been arrested. I’ve even seen families where people’s doors have been shot [at] as a warning. I’ve seen these things though I’ve never been a part of that, obviously. But what had the biggest effect on me was seeing the effect it [the ‘Ndrangheta] had on the community and the people who are close to it, without being in it. And that is always what fascinated me. To think about the ramifications it has on a family and on the people in it is something that hits close to home. I’ve never seen that side explored in films that talk about this kind of lifestyle.

Back to your method as a director. Do you workshop? Can you talk to me about your preparation before shooting a scene?

That’s the key: the preparation. The preparation is letting them [the actors] know what we are going to do and the general arc of where their character is going and what’s going to be in the film. So they never arrive on the day and are told something that is completely new and crazy and strange and foreign to them. That’s never the case. But for the same reason, to keep it fresh, to keep it spontaneous and not let it feel “acted” we never rehearse and we never do the scene before we are actually ready to shoot it.

They know that scene exists; but they don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. Then when we get there, we explain how it’s going to unfold, and we start shooting it right away. So we are also shooting the rehearsals. The camera is going right away, so it has the energy of doing it for real.

I heard you shot ‘A Chiara’ during the pandemic. How difficult was that?

We started in February 2020 and then in March we got shut down and we stopped for two months and then we picked it back up again in Spring/Summer. So we finished in July of 2020, but then we had to go back the following Winter to get some exteriors that we hadn’t been able to get.

The first part of the shoot was very difficult, but we were also able to make the most of a difficult and unfortunate situation. When the crew left we lost a lot of talented people. But in the end I think it actually helped the film because we were able to create this intense sense of intimacy. It became the most tight knit crew I’ve ever worked with.