A Chiara review: an expressionistic coming-of-age drama

Jonas Carpignano returns once again to the Calabrian port town of Gioia Tauro for a loss-of-innocence tale set in a criminal milieu – but despite vivid performances from the non-professional cast, parts of the film feel overwrought.

14 July 2022

By Jonathan Romney

Swamy Rotolo in A Chiara (2022)
Sight and Sound

Just as the Dardenne brothers have gleaned no fewer than ten dramas from the ostensibly unpromising Belgian industrial town of Seraing, the evidence so far suggests that US-born Jonas Carpignano could generate a similarly rich cycle from the Calabrian port town of Gioia Tauro. In his first film Mediterranea, that region was the eventual destination for an immigrant from Burkino Faso; in follow-up A Ciambra, Carpignano explored a housing estate inhabited by the film’s Roma characters. Now Gioia Tauro is the scene for what initially seems an informal realist portrait of a sheltered adolescence, but eventually reveals itself as a crime story.

A Chiara is a coming-of-age film of a very specific kind, in that the teenage heroine’s loss of innocence comes when she discovers that her happy, pampered family life is really built on crime and the drug trade. Fifteen-year-old Chiara Guerassio enjoys all the pleasures of what is presented as a comfortable, seemingly unremarkable working-class Calabrian household. She and her two sisters, one older, one younger, are somewhat coddled with protective tenderness by their parents – the extraordinary closeness they all radiate emerging from the fact that Carpignano, keeping the flame for Italian neo-realist tradition alive, once again casts non-professionals for verisimilitude, with the Guerassios played by members of the real-life Rotolo family.

The film is at its liveliest and most convincing when depicting the prelapsarian period of Chiara’s life. At her sister’s eighteenth birthday party, presents pile high, disco lights flash and the teenagers take part in a jokey TV-style dance contest. The only signs of trouble are the male relatives going into a conference huddle at the bar, and father Claudio’s (eventually tearful) reluctance to make a speech.

Then everything explodes, and as Chiara learns about Claudio’s involvement with Calabrian crime organization the ‘Ndragheta, the stresses begin to show. As she tries to investigate what’s happening around her family, she increasingly skips school – her anger, isolation and frustration coming to a head when she throws a firecracker at a girl from the Roma community of A Ciambra, the outsider housing estate seen in the film of that title. Maintaining continuity between Carpignano’s features, that film’s young lead Pio Amato reappears, seemingly as his previous character; the same goes for Mediterranea’s Koudous Seihon.

A Chiara hangs on its heroine’s transformation from someone who happily, passively takes what life gives her to a determined survivor who stands alone and resists society’s plans for her. After the firecracker incident – which reveals her young circle’s aggressive prejudice towards the Roma community – she is informed that social services want to place her in a temporary home in another town, as part of a policy of removing gangsters’ children from their families to prevent them being inducted into the criminal order. Chiara escapes custody to discover what goes on under the surface of her family life – literally under the surface, as seen in the cellar hideaways used by Claudio, who at one point emerges from a hole in the middle of a rain-lashed field.

Eventually, Chiara is shown exactly how the family business works. The processing and packaging of drugs is demonstrated to her in a sequence of what seems well-researched journalistic realism – in keeping with the practices of the artist Raphael, who, says Chiara’s cousin Antonio in a digressive art-historical moment, “painted things as they are”.

Carpignano, however, likes to paint a little more expressionistically: where A Ciambra made intensely dramatic use of firelight, this film can’t resist a certain degree of rhetorical overstatement. There’s awkward use of slow motion and of dream, while the ominous score – again by Dan Romer, this time with help from Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin – is laid on thick, not least thanks to the addition of a nerve-grating ‘tinnitus’ effect.

What cuts through the overstatement, however, is the magnetic central presence of Swamy Rotolo. Her character registers at first as callow and carefree, but Rotolo’s keen, quiet alertness – emerging increasingly in a determined, sometimes ferocious stare – shows her character’s uncrushable vitality and survival instinct. Carpignano allows Chiara an open ending – we don’t know whether her visit to her father’s workplace marks the point at which she accepts the criminal order or permanently departs from it – but whichever life she’s eventually headed for, we know she has the wherewithal to handle it. It’s in the eyes, although her leather jacket sends its own defiant message too.

► A Chiara is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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