NYFF 2021 review: A Chiara (Jonas Carpignano)

“That this entire cast of non-actors carry this fictional film so well is a wonder that speaks to director Jonas Carpignano’s genius for directing non-professional actors to extraordinary performances.”

What first strikes you about the opening section of A Chiara is the sheer comfort the actors, including a small child, have with each other. It feels so like-life and naturalistic that you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking that they are related to each other in real life. You would be right as alongside the protagonist, the titular 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), her on-screen family is played by her real family (there are 8 Rotolos in the cast list). That this entire cast of non-actors carry this fictional film so well is a wonder that speaks to director Jonas Carpignano’s genius for directing non-professional actors to extraordinary performances, something he displayed in his previous films Mediterranea (2015) and A Ciambra (2017) too.

Those latter two films, premiering in the Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight sections at the Cannes Film Festival respectively, constitute his Calabria film series. They covered the migrant African and the Roma community respectively. Now comes the conclusion of the trilogy – A Chiara, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section earlier this year, covering the Malavita (mafia) community. Like those films, A Chiara is set in the coastal town of Gioia Tauro in the Calabria region of Italy – the director’s adopted home for the past 10 years. The film dramatizes the real life illegal drug trade carried out by the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime syndicate prominent in the region. Though it must be said this isn’t a regular mafia picture. There isn’t a single shootout or killing or action scene to be found.

The small-town setting might lead people to expect some kind of a poverty porn miserabilist scenario but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The protagonist and her family are shown to be well-off and affluent, living good lives, that may or may not be enabled by cocaine smuggling. Carpignano formats his film like a mystery with Chiara completely clueless about what her father does for a living. Gradually, she sets off on a path to discover her family secrets when her father suddenly disappears one night and a car blows up in front of her house. We, then, as the audience, immerse ourselves in her point of view and discover everything as she does, like a detective investigating the degree of her family’s entanglement with the ‘Ndrangheta and what exactly her mom and elder sister and cousins know.

Despite Carpignano’s best efforts, the film can’t help but feel rather conventional and the payoff to the “mystery” element is rather underwhelming. It also brings to the fore that, despite the director’s obvious talent, this eventually is a humble film with a story of extremely modest scope. That in itself shouldn’t be a shortcoming, but modest stories acquire resonance by commenting upon large issues in a microcosm. We are not sure that is the case here. Indeed while the mafia and the mystery elements help structure the film and give it some sense of forward momentum, the film works best as a bildungsroman where Chiara in a span of a few weeks has an awakening and grows up much more than most 15-year-olds do.

Rotolo in a star-making performance ably carries the film, maintaining interest through her open countenance and driving curiosity. The script was written for her and we very much hope that she will continue to pursue a career in films. Her father Claudio and cousin Antonio (playing those roles in the film as well) also make an impression in measured performances. The movie does well to establish Chiara’s life as a regular teenager, with parties, selfies, make-up, working out, sports, hanging out with friends and family, stealing smokes and the like all part of her existence. The decision to rid the film entirely of even the thought of sexual awakening in the pubescent protagonist might seem empowering on paper but leaves a hole in the middle of the movie’s realism. The story also doesn’t seem to pack in enough incident into its 120 minutes.

Carpignano received a hero’s welcome at the New York Film Festival. Though he lives in Italy and makes films there in Italian, Carpignano – the son of an Italian father and an African-American mother – was born and raised in New York City. He also obtained his film school degree there. As such,  Carpignano’s films qualify as American too – as evidenced by the fact that his previous films were nominated in several general categories at the Independent Spirit Awards (including Best Actor for Mediterranea and Best Director for A Ciambra). Similar success might await A Chiara.

The relationships he forged in film school also enabled him to hire top-shelf, best-of-the-best Hollywood talent to work on his Italian indie films lending them a polished gleam. Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer provide the functional score. It is heartening that a humble Italian drama shares a composer with massive mega-budget studio product like Pixar’s Luca in the same year. Editor Affonso Gonçalves (of Beasts of the Southern Wild and several Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch and Ira Sachs films) provides an engrossing pace. Gonçalves is having a banner year, also having cut Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Haynes’s popular Apple TV documentary The Velvet Underground. Cinematographer Tim Curtin (upgraded from key grip on Beasts and camera operator on Mediterranea) provides realistic visuals.

A Chiara was recently released domestically and will be rolling out in other territories after its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival. Carpignano had the chance to be in Academy Award consideration when Italy submitted A Ciambra but he was passed over this year for Paolo Sorrentino’s much higher-profile Venice winner The Hand of God. A Chiara could certainly have benefitted from the added attention but will nevertheless have opportunities to compete at the Spirit awards as well as Italy’s own David di Donatello awards – bodies that have venerated Carpignano in the past and would be well disposed to do so again.

Now that Carpignano has spoken his final word on stories set in his adopted home town, the sky is the limit for the young filmmaker. He demonstrably possesses immense talent and has at his disposal all the tools and connections needed to make great pictures (his last film was executive produced by Martin Scorsese). He’s definitely one to watch and we will be following his career with great interest.