Jonas Carpignano has made two features; both are hyper-specific character studies about people living in the Southern Italian city of Gioia Tauro. And despite the limited scope of his work, the young writer-director might be one of the world’s most vital filmmakers. Isolating a minor character from 2015’s “Mediterranea” and recasting him as the heart and soul of an unusually volatile coming-of-age story, “A Ciambra” further articulates why Gioia Tauro is such a vivid microcosm of the seismic cultural realignments that are defining the 21st century.
More than that, it also underlines why Carpignano is uniquely capable of capturing the city on camera; having earned the trust of the local population, he makes movies shaped by the people who live there. They are stories of pride, not pity — stories that respect the burden of identity and know that kindness isn’t always enough to bridge the divides that separate us from each other. And that holds true even when the story itself is falling apart.
Sorely lacking the energy that made “Mediterranea” such a vital shot in the arm, “A Ciambra” is a half-step backward for Carpignano, whose clear sense of place is too often hampered by shapeless plot. Not that it matters all that much when you’ve got a protagonist as pure and watchable as Pio Amato. Effectively playing a version of himself, Pio is a gawky 14-year-old who’s very ready to graduate from the awkward purgatory of adolescence. He’s old enough to recognize that he’s growing up in a punitively tribalistic environment, but not old enough to do anything about it.
Sure, he’s been smoking since he could walk and he’s been thieving for so long that he probably stole that first pack of cigarettes, but he’s still just a kid who’s trying to understand a world that doesn’t resemble the one that shaped the older generations of his sprawling Roma family. Pio idolizes his older brother and his father, but it’s clear that he can’t square the casual racism they spout around the dinner table with his own experiences with the area’s growing African population.
And when Pio’s father and brother are both arrested, it isn’t long before he sees Ayiva (fellow “Mediterranea” alum Koudous Seihon, an electric screen presence) as his new male role model. Born into an Italy characterized by migrants and travelers, Pio doesn’t seem to care this new friend is from Burkina Faso. If anything, he never feels more at home than he does in the scene where he watches a soccer match with a group of Africans in a refugee camp, the crowd chanting his name in thanks for bringing them a flat-screen TV.
Mercifully, “A Ciambra” doesn’t sink into a hackneyed drama about an unlikely friendship, nor does Carpignano view Pio and Ayiva as a naïve model for some kind of post-racial society. In fact, he’s so focused on the limits of their relationship that he fails to meaningfully explore the extent to which they impact one another. Their bond is totally believable, which makes it all the more frustrating that the film doesn’t let it fully develop.
Shot with a vérité intimacy that physicalizes Pio’s ability to float between worlds — a trait that captures and complicates the character’s nomadic heritage — “A Ciambra” seems uncomfortable with the identity crisis in which Pio soon finds himself. Carpignano corners himself into a number of clichés, and finally his story is as messy as the experience of growing up in Gioia Tauro. This proves particularly fatal during a scattershot third act that hinges on a massive convenience that’s too improbable and/or poorly explained. When a film is graced with this degree of verisimilitude, every false note rings twice as loudly.
“A Ciambra” is more successful when unpacking the cause of Pio’s identity crisis than it is when searching for solutions. The boy’s grandfather is a particularly helpful character; seemingly centuries removed from his grandson, the old man has a lot of trouble speaking, but Pio understands what he’s trying to say. “We were free…” he says, waxing nostalgic about when they were the only ones crossing borders. “On the road, against the world.”
In the film’s most compelling scene, Pio sees a vision of his grandfather striding through town with a beautiful horse, capable of going anywhere and being anyone. But Carpignano, in his non-didactic way, argues that cultures are living things that need to be permeable if they are to be protected. If he keeps his camera trained on Gioia Tauro, he might just be able to show us the whole world.
“A Ciambra” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight Section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.