Although it has some faults and takes its time to settle in, Jonas Carpignano’s third feature, A Chiara, is a beautifully told documentary-esque story about family ties amidst the real-world stakes of crime activity.
Italian American writer-director Jonas Carpignano has had a compelling career so far. Although his previous films, Mediterranea and A Ciambra, are flawed, there’s a rich texture in both of them thematically and atmospherically. Both deal with stories about different communities and real-world subcultures and how the family ties in them relate to the observations Carpignano wants to focus on. He focuses on one specific region in southwest Italy, named Calabria, and collaborates with people that live in that region to create a more authentic experience with cinematic value. Mainly focused on these insular communities, his storytelling methods have an almost documentary-esque accuracy or approach. His previous two films are part of an informal Calabrian trilogy because of the locations in which they are situated. However, he wants to close it with his third feature, A Chiara, which travels to the southern part of the region, Gioia Tauro – a commune in the metropolitan city.
A Chiara revolves around a fifteen-year-old girl named Chiara (hence where the movie’s name comes from), who Swamy Rotolo plays with an outstanding balance of intensity, charisma, and kind magnetism that engages you throughout the film’s entirety. Nonetheless, the attention in the first twenty minutes goes to her sister Giulia – played by Grecia Rotolo, Swamy’s actual sister and one of the multiple family members that consist of the film’s cast – and her eighteenth-birthday party. Everything is going fine, and everyone is festive. Family members are toasting what they are grateful for, dance competitions are held, and dinner is served. However, something is off with Chiara’s father (Claudio Rotolo) once he isn’t in the eye of his daughters. He loves his family dearly, but what he does in his day-to-day life is private. Claudio is a member of the Calabrian mafia, better known as ‘Ndrangheta. Of course, Chiara doesn’t know anything of this, albeit once the party is cut short and her father disappears, she begins to question his role in this weird role.
Claudio is sent into hiding for the better of his underground business, in which multiple cousins and family members are playing a part. The film’s atmosphere switches quickly once this moment arrives. The camera moves quicker – when shooting hallways, it goes side to side to cause the feeling of disorientation – and the score changes. The vibrant pop track-filled soundtrack, which varies in different genres, is changed to a more ambient and sonorous one. It all adds up so that the audience is in Chiara’s mental state at that specific moment of unclearness. She doesn’t know what is happening, and the people who do aren’t giving her answers. So, what is she supposed to do? Finally, with no further options, she decides to investigate on her own; try to find out what exactly happened with her father. Of course, the viewer is a couple of steps ahead of the lead character, but it’s heartbreaking seeing her figure it out and finally know the truth behind her family.
Even if there are mafia ties in this narrative, Carpignano leaves the brutal violence that might arise. It instead relies on other crimes, one involving setting fire to a car, and the curiosity of the young and bold Chiara. One scene, in particular, reminded me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria. It involves a group of kids lighting fireworks on assimilating gunshot sounds. In Memoria, a person hears a car exhaust pop, and he drops to the floor, thinking that it is someone shooting at him. This causes her a sense of discomfort since she’s slowly figuring it all out. Chiara has the feeling that terrible things can happen out of the blue, thanks to the criminal activity in their family. I’m accustomed to such things since here in Puerto Rico, it happens constantly. There are occasions when you hear a loud bang up in the mountains, and you don’t even know if it’s a gunshot or something else.
As the story keeps developing, Chiara has a big decision to make: either she stays with her father to continue the family business of crime or goes with the authorities so that she can be taken away from her loved ones in hopes of a better life. A Chiara ends similarly to how it begins, with another festive party three years later. Chiara is now eighteen and can make her own decisions, now that she’s of age. The thing is that she already made her life-changing decision when she was fifteen. She decided she’d preferred to embrace the evil in their family’s veins that would be away from them for eternity. Naturally, before making a significant determination, it would break her heart to learn about the acts their parents, particularly her father, was in, even if they are implied and not said. It adds to the element of family ties and how it intertwines with tough decisions people make in their lives; in this case, it is a darker side of reality involving the crimes underworld.
Carpignano’s direction in this narrative is truly naturalistic, with many close-ups of the family member’s faces. The cast is playing fictionalized versions of themselves, and it adds an element of passion and sheer camaraderie since all of them are actually connected. In the end, this is all about an interconnected community, and it shows when there are brief appearances of the leads from Carpignano’s features, Pio Amato and Koudous Seihon. There is no judgment toward the characters of this film. It continues its story without critiquing the decisions characters make on and off the frame. The script exposes the less-marginalized population by deconstructing a mafia tale through the eyes of an outsider. Carpignano’s direction is seen in a more mature light, albeit keeping some of the same themes all over his former work and focusing on leads coming of age through stringent circumstances. A Chiara is lovely and haunting in a pragmatic fashion, blending drama and crime and focusing on real-world stakes, avoiding melodramatic sensibilities.
A Chiara will be released in US theaters on Friday, May 27, 2022. The film will be released theatrically in the UK on July 15, and on MUBI in the UK/IE, Germany, Latin America and Turkey on August 26.
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