Back in 2017, we sat down with director Jonas Carpignano shortly after the AFI Fest screening of A Ciambra, the second installment of his Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. During that conversation, Carpignano eschewed the term “trilogy” for “triptych” in describing his series of features, which sees its conclusion with A Chiara, the winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. There is good reason for a clear delineation of terms here when describing Carpignano’s triptych of Mediterranea, A Ciambra, and A Chiara. These films are, as the director stated in 2017, “tied together through overlapping characters and motifs, even less than narrative logic.” As with a triptych like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue, White, and Red, you can experience each film individually on its own merits, but it is their collective power that confirms the overarching significance of their unity.
With Gioia Tauro as a constant throughout, Carpignano’s triptych utilizes the familial motivations of its three central characters, who possess different ethnic and economic backgrounds, to examine how each character’s actions are conceived and received based on the varying degrees of acceptance from their own or surrounding community. In Mediterranea, we follow Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who has made the perilous journey from Burkina Faso to Italy with the goal of finding any work that could help him send funds back to his family in Africa. Although he finds work in Gioia Tauro as a migrant laborer, he is not accepted by the bulk of the residents in his new environment, and his presence is often met with overt resistance or dubious opportunities for survival. In A Ciambra, Ayiva returns as the friend of Pio Amato, a young teen who is part of the Romani community in Calabria that is somewhat adjusted to life there, but is not fully accepted by the native Calabrians. As Pio and Ayiva have both been ostracized from the broader community due to their backgrounds, they become close friends, but when a dire situation arises within Pio’s family, the differences between the two friends overshadow their commonalities.
With A Chiara, Carpignano places a female in the lead for the first time in the form of 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. Chiara is a quintessential Gen Z Italian teen. As the film begins, she works out on a treadmill in a fashionable gym before readying herself for the lavish, but warm, festivities surrounding her elder sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday. At the party, Chiara makes it clear to her adoring father that she understands, and is content with, the quasi-normal family dynamic and order her parents have created, and she joyously dances and blissfully documents the celebration on her phone with the knowledge that her worldview is secure.
However, when Chiara steps out from the festivities and is confronted outside of the party venue by her cousin, who frowns upon on her smoking and rebellious attitude, Carpignano veers the viewer toward a classical coming of age film but shifts away from such a conceit when Chiara, later that evening, sees a firebomb destroy her father’s car in front of the family home. Her father soon becomes a fugitive for his connections to the ‘Ndrangheta, and Chiara is awakened from the fantasy that her family’s protection and her non-Roma, non-African ethnicity have afforded her up to this point in her young life.
With the grim news spreading to her school, Chiara is humiliated and flabbergasted by the realization that she has lived for so long without any knowledge of her father’s illicit activities. As she seeks to find the truth, she digs through her home and discovers her father’s abandoned hideout while virulently confronting her mother and her older sister, Giulia, about what they know. When their answers prove less than satisfying to Chiara, she embarks on a mission with a clue from Ayiva, whom she meets outside of her cousin’s café, that leads her to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych and whom we briefly see again in A Chiara. The residents of Ciambra, whom Chiara has looked down upon and even mistreated at times, express their familiarity with her father, bringing forth a revelation that further erodes the comfortable social gap that Chiara once believed existed between her and them.
As Chiara feels her social status and trust in her family dissipate with each new finding, she takes out her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl, resulting in a governmental order for Chiara to live with a wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician in Urbino, a walled city known as the birthplace of Raphael with a center declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Urbino symbolizes the pure essence of Renaissance Italy, and Gioia Tauro, the once planned industrial hub, exemplifies the country’s failure to modernize the south. Thus, despite her perceived level of “Italianness” over Ayiva and Pio’s respective communities, Chiara must now assume the role of immigrant in her own country as she departs the place of her birth, the place forever associated with the criminality of her family, and a place with a radically different culture and history than that of Urbino.
Essential to A Chiara’s profoundly unapologetic, determined mood, is Carpignano’s continued commitment to using non-professional actors who clearly understand the region depicted in his triptych. Swamy Rotolo, whose only other acting credit is a small role in A Ciambra, assuredly handles the task of playing a difficult, and at times unsympathetic, character with a fierce bravado offset by a palpable angst that pays homage to Monica Vitti’s performance in Red Desert. Whereas Vitti’s character’s naïveté and cloistered world shatters with her growing awareness of the poisons of industrialization led by her husband and lover, Chiara’s innocence disintegrates as she discovers the role her family plays in distributing drugs in the aftermath of failed industrialization.
However, Chiara dominates the screen, not landscapes of the aging portside waterfront nor portraits of the broken promises of 20th century modernity, and this tighter focus on Chiara draws you deeper into her questions, experiences, and decisions to complete the triptych’s connective notion of sacrifice and status. Ayiva sacrifices himself for the future of his family. Pio sacrifices his friendship with Ayiva for the sake of his familial ties, and Chiara sacrifices her family for the sake of her own future. What each character ultimately sacrifices becomes a representation of the vast difference in choices available for each based on their current socioeconomic status and how long they and their families have lived in Italy, and altogether, the three characters and their respective films illuminate how decades, even centuries, of history can collide in a single place in a single point in time through different communities and their perceived and true state of acclimation to contemporary Italy.
A Chiara is currently showing in limited theaters in the United States. Featured image courtesy of mk2 films.
Lily and Generoso Fierro