It comes as something of a surprise to realize we still feel invested, four years on, in the characters Jonas Carpignano created in “A Ciambra” and, two years earlier, “Mediterranea.” Those two films, shot with a muscular contemporary neorealism, captured two sides of life in the hardscrabble underside of the Calabrian city Gioia Tauro, a place so associated with the province’s criminal organization the ‘Ndrangheta that most websites barely mention a more salutary history stretching back millennia. With “A Chiara,” the writer-director adds another facet to the earlier stories, one more intimately connected to the region’s mafia, but it’s perhaps too soon to call Carpignano’s three features a triptych since the panorama he’s built could easily keep extending further.
Although each film is a standalone, the recurrence of characters from the earlier stories offers a greater sense of how multiple strata of society interact, and it’s this understanding of interconnectivity determined by, yet shifting outside ethnicity and class, that creates such a complex and ultimately realistic picture. Carpignano’s focus here on 15-year-old Chiara (a radiant Swamy Rotolo), like his earlier spotlight in “A Ciambra” on 14-year-old Pio, is a natural way of prepping the audience’s sympathies, but he aims beyond easy generational assumptions, and even more noticeably than in his sophomore work, he’s imbibed some lessons from Martin Scorsese (who also exec produced that earlier film) in refusing to presume a judgmental stance. “A Chiara” will likely expand the director’s visibility and send people back to watching his earlier features.
Chiara’s world is about to turn upside-down, which is why the camera at the start gets so close that the screen is an abstract canvas seemingly rotated sideways. She and her close-knit family the Guerrasios are about to celebrate the 18th birthday of their eldest, Giulia (Grecia Rotolo). Before the festivities, they’re all seen in the playful warm-blanket security of home (the atmosphere of love and ease comes effortlessly given that they’re all played by the Rotolo clan). Carpignano spends a lot of time at the birthday party — too much time perhaps — though the extended scenes allow us to observe and almost partake in the dynamics, with hints of typical teenage rivalry but mostly love and support, especially between Chiara and her taciturn father (Claudio Rotolo).
Later that night a car explodes across the street from the Guerrasio home and Chiara sees her father fleeing over a low wall. Her mother Carmela (Carmela Fumo) acts like it’s nothing to worry about, exuding reassurances to her three daughters but not offering any answers. The next day there’s a news story about Claudio, unequivocally naming him as part of a criminal organization, and the wall of silence at home becomes unbearable, especially after Chiara discovers a hidden bunker accessible through a secret panel in the living room. When she tries talking with her sister about it, Giulia turns up the car radio’s volume and mouths she should shut up, furthering Chiara’s feeling of having stumbled upon a secret only she didn’t know about.
Carpignano risks the suspension of disbelief: Is Chiara really so naïve she never knew Claudio was connected with the ‘Ndrangheta? Yet the sympathies developed in the earlier scenes allow us to put that niggling concern aside. Sensing her protected world suddenly destabilized, Chiara acts out, indulging her ingrained anti-Roma racism by tossing a firecracker at some peers (played by actors from “A Ciambra”). The next day a social worker turns up at school and Chiara is told she’s being placed in foster care in order to ensure she’s removed from the harmful criminal influences of home.
The film doesn’t demonize the social worker, nor does it make light of criminal activity: One could argue that by not showing the horrific toll of the illegal drug trade, Carpignano brushes it under the carpet and lets the notoriously violent ‘Ndrangheta off light, but this isn’t a film about the mafia. Instead, it’s about growing up inside a loving community that harbors a terrible secret, and whether breaking apart a family is really the best way of breaking up The Family. Even more, “A Chiara” allows Carpignano an opportunity to turn his generous gaze on another ignored segment of Calabrian society, one whose values — family, mutual support — can’t be dismissed because we’re uncomfortable with how they exist side-by-side with a sense of ethics that stops at the bounds of kinship.
This sense of what lies not just below the surface but also what’s inside and out is reinforced by the attention paid to interior and exterior, and what that conveys. Whereas in “A Ciambra” the Amatos spent as much time as possible outdoors, here the Guerrasios are indoor dwellers, creating nests for themselves that keep them close to each other while ensuring the outside world can’t enter. Bunkers play with the notion of an underworld in both criminal and mythological senses, offering safe havens yet instilling a fear of being buried alive with no certainty of what the world will be like once it’s possible to emerge. In Chiara’s neighborhood, night holds no fears: Instead it’s the revelations of the day that are most frightening.
Tim Curtin’s dynamic camera is attuned to Chiara’s teenage energy without going overboard, playing on a liminal balance between security and imbalance. Carpignano uses music to even more forcefully reflect Chiara’s life, though its omnipresence risks driving the film’s moods rather than eliding with them.