Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 9th, 2021
A Chiara (Jonas Carpignano, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
15-year-old Chiara seems like a typical affluent teen, content in her privilege and not particularly sensitive towards those who have less. The middle daughter of three, she is ready to grow up, already, a bit envious of her older sibling, Giulia, who turns 18 soon after we meet her. It’s at that latter’s birthday party that Chiara’s ostensibly charmed life falls apart, the family patriarch disappearing that night, his car exploding in the aftermath. Nothing is quite how it has appeared, and Chiara will soon have to indeed grow up, though not in the way she imagined.
Such is the set-up of Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara, his third feature in a loose trilogy—begun with his 2015 Mediterranea and continued with his 2017 A Ciambra—set in the southern Italian region of Calabria (the tip of mainland Italy’s boot). In it, the director takes a sometimes-unlikable protagonist and puts her through her paces, delivering a fascinating portrait of the human capacity for change. Though a little long and sometimes narratively uneven, it offers a mostly gripping drama of loss and quasi-redemption.
Given how the paterfamilias, Claudio, vanishes, and how the port town, Gioia Tauro, where they reside is a known center of mafia-run drug trafficking, it’s easy to draw conclusions about the why and the how of the central conflict. But it’s not so simple to Chiara. A heretofore popular kid in school, she has thought nothing of bullying those she doesn’t like, including a local Romani classmate. Now she is forced to confront the lie behind the truth, discovering secret passageways beneath her house and secret connections among her family.
Whereas before Chiara’s main concern was whether or not her parents would mind if she smoked, she suddenly has vastly different priorities. Especially once she collides head-on with a local law that grants the state the right to remove children from crime families to other jurisdictions in order to break the cycle of violence and give them a chance at a different kind of life. Chiara wants none of that, though a careless act of cruelty threatens to remove any agency she might otherwise have had.
Carpignano casts members of the same family to play most of the characters here, lending not only physical authenticity to their relationships, but easy, believable rapport, as well. Swamy Rotolo plays Chiara, Claudio Rotolo plays Claudio, Grecia Rotolo plays Giulia, and so on and so forth. Given that the ’Ndrangheta—the criminal organization operating in that area—is based entirely on blood ties (which explains the above-mentioned law), filling the screen with actors who share direct DNA makes great sense.
It helps that they also interpret their roles with nuance and sensitivity. Above them all looms young Swamy, however, whose performance carries the film through its more tedious passages. Watching her struggle to understand the reality around her and then react to it with resilience and strength is never not engaging. A Chiara is perfectly titled, then, for it’s her story, and Swamy Rotolo’s movie.