In his Calabrian series that began with Mediterranea, about the North African refugee influx, and shifted to a Romani community in A Ciambra, writer-director Jonas Carpignano brought unvarnished naturalism to vivid snapshots of a place where poverty, racism and crime to a large extent shape the social fabric. He completes the trilogy with A Chiara, for the first time focusing on a young female protagonist and delivering what’s arguably his most accomplished and affecting film to date. A too-protracted final act notwithstanding, this chronicle of a keen-eyed teen’s loss of innocence builds to a shattering climax.
Again coaxing impeccably unselfconscious performances out of nonprofessional actors, Carpignano casts Swamy Rotolo as Chiara, who is 15 when the film begins and appears alongside what appears to be her entire family in a fictional narrative. As always with the Italian American writer-director’s work, that story takes time to reveal itself. But there’s a new urgency to the drama once it kicks in, a more haunting intimacy that comes in no small part from the churning depths of Rotolo’s central performance as Chiara slowly absorbs shocking discoveries about her adored father.
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The rambunctious picture of family life that opens the film is instantly engaging even if you’re not sure at first where it’s headed. Chiara, big sister Giulia and the baby of the family, Giorgia, erupt into what seem like frequent good-natured, noisy squabbles while their mother Carmela makes distracted efforts to keep the peace and their father, Claudio, swoops in to soak up all their love. This is very much a male-dominated world, but he seems content to let the women rule at home.
There’s excitement in the air because of Giulia’s 18th birthday party, a big community event with all the extended family present, and Tim Curtin’s limber handheld camera weaving among the guests. Carpignano amusingly captures the way Italian teenagers, especially in small regional towns like Gioia Tauro where his trilogy is set, have cellphones and contemporary fashions but still rush the dance floor for kitschy vintage hits like Raffaella Carrà’s “Tuca Tuca” from 1971, indicating a place where the present is never very far from the past. Claudio declares Giulia the dance contest winner because it’s her birthday, but Chiara is clearly his favorite and she gets mildly anxious when her uncles catch her smoking and threaten to tell him.
Disquieting notes of tension creep in after the party, enhanced by the ambient hum paired with Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s atmospheric score, as Chiara overhears fragments of conversation among her parents and uncles, indicating that something’s wrong. That suspicion is confirmed when she witnesses her father’s parked car explode in the street outside and her mother is evasive about his whereabouts and the reasons for his sudden disappearance.
While asking around for information at school the next day, she sees a news report on her phone indicating that Claudio is a fugitive, suspected of being a major drug supplier with ties to the local mafia ring known as the ‘Ndrangheta. Watching Chiara grasp the truth for the first time about the money funding her family’s comfortable life, there’s an implicit sense of kids being raised to look the other way. Her mother tells her she’s too young to understand, while Giulia, who clearly knows a lot more, says not to ask questions.
But tenacious Chiara keeps snooping around for answers as a feeling of dread steadily takes root. She finds a bunker under the house with a burner phone and all over town it seems as if people know more than they’re willing to say. (Threading together the trilogy, all three of which have premiered in Cannes, she encounters characters from both Mediterannea and A Ciambra in her sleuthing.)
When she is hauled into the principal’s office for skipping school and getting into scrapes with her classmates, Chiara doesn’t receive the usual warning. Instead she and her mother are informed about a social services program in which the court separates at-risk children from their families until they turn 18 in an effort to break the hereditary chain of the malavita. That kind of cultural specificity distinguishes the film from the average coming-of-age story.
Without in any way letting A Chiara become conventionally movie-ish, Carpignano deftly ratchets up the thriller factor as his protagonist takes flight and refuses to be intimidated by her uncles, forcing an intense confrontation in which her eyes are fully opened to the stark truths of the family business.
The payoff in these scenes is substantial, with Curtin’s camera on constant alert for each new spark of understanding as it plays out across Rotolo’s expressive face. Wrapping up his stories is never Carpignano’s strong point and at two full hours, this one could have used greater economy. But the slow-burn power of the drama is formidable and there are moments of separation that pack searing poignancy. There’s also a pleasing symmetry in the decision to bookend the film with another 18th birthday party, providing insights into the contradictions of late adolescence, a time suspended between carefree childhood and the bruising reckonings of adulthood.
A Chiara (which translates as “To Chiara”) is the most polished of Carpignano’s three features though it still maintains enough grittiness and rough edges to fit the material. In terms of dramatic impact, it lifts the director’s scrappy neo-neorealism to another level, showing him increasingly in command of the medium and physically entrenched in the milieu he continues to explore in fascinating detail.