A Chiara depicts a dark rite of passage | 25YL

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Having debuted last year at Cannes to stellar reviews, this week A Chiara is coming to select North American theaters. Written and directed by Jonas Carpignano, A Chiara is the third of his films to examine, from a very subjective and personal point of view, the sub-communities of Gioia Tauro, in Calabria: where his first Mediterranean (2015) and A Ciambra (2017) focused on African and Roma sub-communities, A Chiara takes as its subject the ‘Malavita’, the families involved in the underground mafia known as ‘Ndrangheta. Named after its protagonist, a teenage girl confronting the truth about her family’s criminality, A Chiara depicts a dark and captivating rite of passage.

Chiara, 15, is the younger sister of Giulia, whose 18th birthday is celebrated at a big gathering with family and friends. The two girls and their family enjoy a close, if sometimes conflicted, relationship. At the party, a few menacing-looking strangers appear on a work call; the girls’ father, Claudio, seems annoyed by their presence. Later, he categorically refuses to toast Giulia’s birthday. He is not one, he says “to get up and speak”.

Mother Carmela (Carmela Fumo), sister Giulia (Grecia Rotolo) and father Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) celebrate Giulia’s 18th birthday. Photo: NEON.

After the party, Chiara sees her father flee as a car explodes in the street. And the next day he disappeared. The mother, Carmela, acts oblivious to the mystery and violence, explaining her typical “taking care of business”. But Chiara is deeply suspicious. A news report on Claudio’s illicit activities and a secret passageway through their home add to his growing suspicions and determination to uncover the truth. This secret passageway, leading underground to a hidden bunker of labyrinthine tunnels and escape routes, serves as a metaphor for Chiara’s own journey to adulthood.

For a time, then, as Chiara let go of the carefree sundries of her oblivious teenage life – workouts, socials, school –A Chiara becomes a detective novel. Chiara is brave and tireless, her quest for the truth driven in part by her love for her father and in part by her own determination. His investigation leads to family ties to a mafia underworld. And it puts her in physical danger, not only for her own safety, but also for her relationship with her own family.

A close-up of Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) watching intently.
Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) becomes increasingly determined to investigate her father’s disappearance. Photo: NEON.

The Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, is based solely on blood ties. Jdating back centuries and consisting strictly of a loose web of ‘ndrinaor family clans, ‘Ndranghetisti US$60 billion a year from drug trafficking and money laundering. Family ties prevent infiltrators and traitors: no one turns against his own family. To weaken their power, the Calabrian authorities have placed the children of certain mafia families in foster care, and Chiara is faced with this situation. Is her situation so precarious that it warrants her removal from her family’s care, relocating her away from their criminal influence?

Rather than presenting plot points like these melodramatically, Carpignano and his team opt for a calm, naturalistic, and ambient approach. Tim Curtin’s handheld camera is almost always, it seems, a few feet away from Swamy Rotolo as Chiara follows her as she exercises, socializes and later investigates. (The subjective, dynamic approach is the polar opposite of a film like the motionless, omniscient setting of Gamak Ghar.) With no voiceovers or excessive reliance on point-of-view shots, it’s a first-person approach to cinematic storytelling as imaginable, and the result is that viewers only know what Chiara knows, and nothing more. We are left to consider her father’s complicity in Mafia crimes just as Chiara is, and largely from her perspective.

Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s soundtrack further aligns viewers’ perspective with Chiara’s emotions. From Italian trap to Ed Sheeran ballads, the diegetic pop music creates a sonic soundscape of what girls like Chiara listen to, and the subtle score evokes Chiara’s intense emotional states without hyperbole or melodrama. The result is a coming-of-age film that closely embraces the perspective of the protagonist. Is Chiara’s family trustworthy? Is their way of life legitimate? Should she follow in his footsteps, or simply protect their anonymity? And when a social worker steps in, is the alternative she presents viable?

Combine the narrative structure of the investigation with the theme of the initiation film, A Chiara ultimately takes its protagonist to a crossroads where she must choose one life or another. Chiara is a tireless detective, and her steely will means she won’t be denied. And she won’t let anyone – from her parents to the mafia to social services – determine her fate for her. Neither the state nor the ‘Ndrangheta is transformed into a comic book villain. (In fact, since the Mafia’s reputed violence rarely appears on screen, one might conclude that Carpignano lets them off the hook.) They’re presented simply as Calabrian facts, two opposing alternatives that many Gioia Tauro might be confronted.

Swamy Rotolo as Chiara.
Swamy Rotolo as Chiara. Photo: NEON

Which they are, of course, for Chiara. Its interpreter, Swamy Rotolo, with her large dark eyes and penetrating gaze, has a difficult task: as the protagonist and point-of-view character, she is on screen for almost every second of A Chiara. A scene where she throws a firecracker at a group of rivals highlights her own violent predispositions and racial prejudices. (These rivals, by the way, are played by actors from Carpignano earlier A Ciambracreating a loosely related “universe” of characters and stories, one with seemingly limitless potential.)

Swamy’s family members – particularly sister Gracia and father Claudio Rotolo, but also extended family – play other roles in the film, a nod to Italian neorealism in the casting of non-professional actors . First casting as an extra in A Ciambra and bearing no other IMDb credits to his name, Swamy Rotolo bears A Chiara with its intensity and passion. His performance makes A Chiara well worth the trip, and with his third Calabrian feature completed, Carpignano a writer-director whose storytelling potential seems limitless.

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