Film Review: ‘A Ciambra’ Is an Intimate Portrait of a Hard Knock Italian Life

In 2015, Jonas Carpignano made a splash with his debut feature “Mediterranea,” a drama that hearkens back to the heyday of neorealism. With his follow-up “A Ciambra,” the Italian-American filmmaker continues in the same vein. Once again, he focuses on a member of one of Italy’s minority populations. And in the process, he crafts an intimate, melancholic portrait of their daily struggle.

“A Ciambra” is a loose sequel, reintroducing audiences to characters first seen in “Mediterranea.” This time around, the narrative centers around Pio Amato, a young teen from a small Romani community in Calabria. Growing up in a close-knit but humble family, he has learned to hustle from a young age. He is highly influenced by his older brother, Cosimo, as they make money by stealing and selling goods, from electronics to cars. The local police are aware of their illicit dealings, however, putting pressure on them and their co-conspirators with frequent raids. For the most part, they remain unscathed. But as they put themselves increasingly at odds with the law, Pio will eventually be forced to contemplate his life.

While that inner reflection eventually arises — complete with a “single tear” money shot — “A Ciambra” is less concerned with its protagonist’s growth than it is about capturing his everyday experience. Indeed, the narrative is far from your typical coming of age story, as Pio is already streetwise beyond his years. Carpignano’s introduction of the character sees him smoking and clubbing, among other typically mature pursuits. And like we already knew from “Mediterranea,” he is an experienced, crafty hustler.

“A Ciambra” goes further however, by immersing the audience in his home environment. In doing so, it begs the question of whether “nature” or “nurture” has contributed to his worldview and interests. And in answering this, the film is remarkably nuanced and feels true to life.

Indeed, “A Ciambra” never hits a false note, undoubtedly aided by the fact that Pio and the rest of the cast are essentially playing themselves. Even so, it is the curiosity of Carpignano’s sharp directorial vision that brings these characters and their world to life. A rowdy conversation around the dinner table, for example, reveals much about the social dynamics of their community. On the one hand, this underprivileged Romani family boasts that they are “eating like Italians.” In another breath, they are making derogatory remarks about African immigrants.

There are other small details that complete this intimate character study, and always with a naturalistic matter-of-factness. Along the way, we learn that Pio is illiterate and lacks positive role models. His outlook is therefore disheartening. However, his interactions with his friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon, the star of “Mediterranea”) and the rest of the diversely African community convey an uplifting humanism. Pio is a tough cookie whose face betrays little of his emotions and is at times frustratingly aimless. But through his innate compassion, “A Ciambra” reminds us of that glimmer of hope that exists within similarly lost children everywhere.

“A Ciambra” is the Italian submission for the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

GRADE: (★★★)

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