Continuing the series that he began with Mediterranea and A Ciambra, Italian-American director Jonas Carpignano’s third feature gives further dimension to the world and lives of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate of Calabria. A Chiara is arguably Carpignano’s most accomplished work to date, pressing ever further into the interior psychologies of his characters.
We meet the eponymous Chiara (Swamy Rotolo, reprising a minor role from A Ciambra) at fifteen years old, living with her loving family as the middle sister between the elder Giulia (Grecia Rotolo) and younger Giorgia (Giorgia Rotolo). Carpignano’s trick, repeated from previous work, of casting a real-life family members once again fosters an authenticity that juxtaposes the film’s lofty themes and ironically grounds the film’s (largely) off-screen violence in domestic reality. Chiara’s family, however, are not living in the poverty that A Ciambra’s Pio (Pio Amato, making a brief cameo here) was, while all the markers of a stable family life belie the chaos and carnage under the surface.
Shortly after Giulia’s eighteenth birthday, a car is bombed just outside their family home. Shortly afterwards, the girls’ father (Claudio Rotolo) vanishes. The rest of the family are curiously silent about his disappearance; it is not until Chiara sees his image on the news that she discovers that he is a member of the vast ‘Ndrangheta criminal empire and has gone into hiding. After a clash with her cousin and her Roma friends (Pio numbering among them), Chiara is taken from her family by a social worker before she too goes on the run.
While retaining the realism of his earlier work, Carpignano has never been more at ease with visual symbolism; physical spaces take on increasingly psychological dimensions as Chiara unpeels the layers of the mystery. Her discovery of a secret basement hidden behind a fireplace blurs the boundaries between domestic space and metaphysical. Those boundaries are later erased wholly on a blasted heath shrouded in fog that is equal parts Macbeth and Stalker. Reuniting with her father, Chiara must pass through a literal gateway and journey underground, emerging into adulthood and the dangerous realm of her father.
That Carpignano is able to play with such imagery while never breaking the absolute reality of this work is testament to his considerable and growing skill as a filmmaker, not to mention an outstanding lead performance from Swamy Rotolo that embodies vividly the liminal space between the worlds of the child and the adult. More than that, Chiara‘s expansion of Carpignano’s cinema serves only to deepen its engagement with and complicate the social and ethical questions of a story that continues to play out on and off the screen.