A Chiara ★★★
Availability: Opening in theaters in North America tomorrow (May 27); widely available streaming in Europe. For future North American streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
Nancy Drew Takes on the Mafia
Chiara, a 15-year-old in a Southern Italian family of girls, is about to celebrate her older sister’s entrance into adulthood, at Giulia’s lavish 18th birthday party. There is almost an hour of shaky, close-up, on-the-verge of nauseating, hand-held camera tracking of intimate family play and birthday festivities. Then, in the middle of the night, Chiara sees her father’s car set afire. And he disappears.
Persistent in asking her family questions about these events, Chiara is treated as too young to know. But the teenager is a no-nonsense, highly motivated, fiercely independent young woman. That description may sound familiar. It’s taken directly from our last review, “Happening,” the French film about a similarly strong young woman, who was determined to obtain an abortion in 1963 France. Both are coming-of-age films, pitting the protagonists against friends and family in their quests, in one case of an abortion, in this one of the truth about her family.
Coming-of-age films are powerful in their focus on one of life’s pivotal times, when a person comes into knowledge and adulthood; innocence lost. But they need to do more than that, especially given their proliferation in our media. Jonas Carpignano, an Italian-American whose films reveal and valorize the desperate lives in Italy’s South, passes the test in this, the last of his award-winning trilogy set in Reggio Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot. The first, “Mediterranea” (2015) tells the story of two Africans immigrating to the town; the second, “A Ciambra” (2017), features a boy coming of age in the Roma (“gypsy”) section (called “Ciambra”); and this, the third, focuses on the Mafia’s grip on the presumably non-marginalized Italian community of Gioia Tauro. (The 'Ndrangheta—the name of the Mafia in Southern Italy—in fact does control the town, a port on the Tyrrhenian Sea.) All three films won major prizes at Cannes.
“A Chiara” succeeds in part because of the strength of its non-professional cast. Right, Carmela Fumo Rotolo, Grecia Rotolo (as Giulia), and Claudio Rotolo - mother, daughter, and father, as they are in life.
As in “A Ciambra,” “A Chiara” succeeds in part because of the strength of its non-professional cast, here the improbably named Swamy Rotolo as Chiara, and the Rotolo family. Her father, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) may be portrayed as too much of a good guy. He’s the family man who engages in loving horseplay with his three daughters; a shy presence who can’t bring himself to offer a public toast at his eldest’s 18th birthday party; a father who cries as he tells Giulia (Grecia Rotolo) she is the joy of his life. He has much in common with the comforting, caring, avuncular Harry Dean Stanton, the father (Jack) of Molly Ringwald (Andie) in the iconic 1986 coming-of-age film, “Pretty in Pink.”
Above, family man Dad, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo), dancing with his middle daughter, Chiara (Swamy Rotolo).
“They think we’re all alike,” Claudio says, explaining his version of the Mafia to Chiara, his middle daughter, as he hands her a cigarette, signifying she’s ready to be an adult and to understand the family business. “But we’re not.” In describing what he does and who he is, Claudio says simply, “we call it survival.”
Carpignano centers his film on Chiara, on her precocious inner consciousness and unblinking eyes. Left, Swamy Rotolo as Chiara, with those eyes.
Carpignano centers his film on Chiara, on her precocious inner consciousness and unblinking eyes. There’s little sexuality in the film, no boyfriends to distract her, exert power over her, or to challenge the Mafia’s “rules” governing dating and marriage. Like Anne in “Happening,” she’s a feminist in a world that wouldn’t know that term. A Mafia story without much being said about the men who dominate it and the women who go along, “A Chiara” is not “The Godfather.” No horse’s head in the bed, no throats slit. Fear is not the motivating emotion. What Chiara knows of the local Mafia comes from her father—a sympathetic yet unreliable narrator—and a social worker, whom one instinctively distrusts.
Chiara has difficult choices to make. She doesn’t deliberate over them verbally; she doesn’t discuss her future with her friends or family. She’s a young woman whose will translates into a form of power, but first she must know the facts. The narrative Carpignano draws, from the fun-loving, sometimes mean-girl teen to a sadly wise adult, who celebrates her own 18th birthday as the film closes, is one of mystery, tenderness, and ambiguity.
Director: Jonas Carpignano
Starring: Swamy Rotolo, Claudio Rotolo, Grecia Rotolo, Carmela Fumo Rotolo and 4 other Rotolo family members; Pio Amato (from “A Ciambra”)
Countries: Italy, France
Languages: Italian, subtitled in English
Runtime: 121 minutes
Other Awards: 9 wins, including Label Europa Cinema at Cannes, and 20 nominations.