Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra is a mesmerizing, albeit frustrating, follow-up to his excellent debut, Mediterranea
Could it be that a small town in a coastal region of southern Italy be the only place a filmmaker needs to explore their cinephilic inclinations? Is this small microcosm in reality a representation of the bigger picture, so to speak? Does Gioia Tauro showcase the paradigms of the world-at-large? To Cannes-favorite Jonas Carpignano, that certainly seems to be the case. The Italian-American director has never cinematically left the small town of 20,000 people, setting all his films in the charming port city. From his short film, A Chjàna to his feature directorial debut, Mediterranea, all of Carpignano’s films have been set in the diverse municipality. To this filmmaker, there is no need to look beyond it–at least for now. Gioia Tauro is the only place for him.
Which is why his follow-up to the poignantly thought-provoking Mediterranea stays put in the small town. Carpignano works off of the diegetic world that he had established in A Ciambra (his second short film that shares the same title as the feature) and Mediterranea, employing a neorealist style that is wholly Italian. Taking inspiration from Rosselini, De Sica, Antonioni and many more, Carpignano weaves an incredibly detailed portrait of the individuals that occupy the underbelly of Gioia Tauro. From the Burkina Faso-born Aviya (played with especial warmth by Koudous Seihon) to the charmingly duplicitous Romani, Pio (who is the focus of A Ciambra), Carpignano has found a wide array of charming individuals who don’t exude misfortune in the shape of pity, but rather modesty and perseverance. Carpignano does not force viewers to feel sorrowful, focusing instead on the heartwarming interactions and moments of seemingly lasting hope. In this manner, Carpignano constructs a diegetic world that is charming, beautiful, and alive with humanism. It’s a wonderful cinematic achievement, one that makes this filmmaker one of the most important ones in the arthouse cinema scene.
Telling the tale of Pio Amato (the same Pio from all of Carpignano’s other films), the Martin Scorsese executive-produced film places its attention on his existence within the Romani community of Gioia Tauro. Pio is fourteen years old and yet he spends his days like a 20-something delinquent. He’s melting down copper, learning to steal cars, drinking beer, and smoking more cigarettes than Robert De Niro in Casino. It’s all in a day’s work for Pio, who has picked up the habits from his family and surrounding community. Sadder still, Pio’s younger cousins–who can’t be more than eight or ten–are seen doing the same unsavory acts, their parents standing idly by as they buff away on Marlboro cigarettes and chase it with sips of red wine. Everyone seems to be desperate to be an adult. And yet, there is still a discernible innocence and precociousness that occupies Pio and his younger cousins.
That begins to change after Pio’s brother and father are jailed, taking it upon himself to become the breadwinner of the family. From extortion to burglary, Pio begins to descend further into the underbelly of Gioia Tauro’s unsavory side, one that his good friend Aviya attempts to undo with his charming manner, father-like disposition, and earnest compassion. Indeed, it is Pio’s and Aviya’s interactions that constitute the most captivating moments of the film, showcasing a friendship that is not bound by the societal standards that occupy the Romani community. As Pio sits down to dinner with his family, the older members of the family casually throw racial epithets and slurs as they describe their run-ins with the African immigrants that live in government-installed tents. And while the Romani are also a marginalized group of individuals, they ironically (and tragically) subject the African immigrants to the same sort of racist rhetoric that the Italians place onto them. It’s perhaps the most off-putting aspect of the film, but one that poignantly points out the contradictory manner of racially-motivated social hierarchies and evolving sentiments of newer generations.
Mediterranea was able to effortlessly (and nearly flawlessly) construct this sentiment, but A Ciambra struggles to find its focus and narrative drive in the same dazzling manner. Although Mediterranea was able to construct a modernist portrait of an individual who is desperate to improve his and his family’s life with a relentless sense of vigor, A Ciambra attempts to do the same, albeit with a lack of articulation in the characterization of our new community and protagonist, Pio and the Romani community. Thankfully, the tantalizing handheld cinematography of Mediterranea makes a pronounced return, coming to be as claustrophobic as the Pio’s phobia when he rides an elevator or takes the train. It makes the neorealism that much more pronounced, a quality that helps elevate A Ciambra to the same profilmic heights that Carpignano had reached with his previous film. But regardless of the small flaws of A Ciambra, the naturally mesmerizing quality of Pio and his surrounding buddies and family members ensures that Carpignano’s newest film be another success for the talented up-and-comer.
A Ciambra is set to be released January 19 in select US theaters.