Film Review: A Ciambra

Jonas Carpignano's sophomore feature is a disturbing, Martin Scorsese-like crime drama disguised as a coming-of-age film.
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Ciambra is the Roma section of the port city of Gioia Tauro, which is in the toe of Italy’s boot, in Reggia Calabria. Filmmaker Jonas Carpignano splits his time between New York City, where he was born, and the Italian quarter of that town. He first visited Gioia Tauro several years ago when one of the cars he had parked during an on-location shoot in Rosarno was stolen, along with the equipment inside the car. In an interview with Italian press, Carpignano explained that a friend advised him to visit Ciambra in order to recover the car. That is where he met Pio Amato, a Roma, and the star of A Ciambra (In Ciambra).

The Roma are a disenfranchised minority in Italy, as Carpignano’s film illustrates in a protracted narrative from the point of view of 14-year-old Pio. He appeared in the filmmaker’s previous feature, Mediterraneo (2015), about refugees from Burkina Faso, which starred Koudous Seihon as Ayiva. Seihon plays the same character in A Ciambra. The film begins with a brief shot of a man and a horse in a landscape of rolling green hills. Audiences who catch a glimpse of the trailer, or the man’s old-fashioned hat, may get an inkling that he is an itinerant Roma of another era. Anyone familiar with horses, though, might wonder at the thoroughbred, that looks like an Orlov Trotter.

The picturesque quality of that shot quickly devolves into 45 minutes of a meandering narrative in which Pio feeds his elderly grandfather, staves off a police raid on the family’s home, and drinks beer and ogles girls at a club, the latter with Ayiva’s encouragement. He plunges down in what appears to be an elevator to attend a raucous gathering at which everyone is drinking, even children younger than Pio. Because Carpignano spends no time introducing characters or their relationships, it is a few minutes before viewers may realize that this is the Amato clan—playing themselves in the movie. As for the rapid descent, during which Pio loses his breath, it also goes unexplained. (Calabria’s Mafia bosses sometimes live in elaborate underground bunkers.)

The dinner scene is where the amateur performances are at their worst, although Pio has a certain rough appeal. Ayiva is excellent as the boy’s confidant; he works at a restaurant and is saving for his return to Burkino Faso. While he tries to deter Pio from his illegal activities, he also sympathizes with the boy’s effort to support his family. Ayiva has a firmer grasp of his identity, but then he is older than Pio. The other Africans in the film are portrayed only slightly better than the Roma; they keep close ties to home, while Pio’s generation are internally displaced Italians.

Everyone in A Ciambra is involved in a criminal enterprise, including “the Italians” who arrive in expensive black cars. They pay the Amatos to break into houses and deliver stolen cars. Even the police commit crimes in their harassment of the Roma. Pio is a gutsy kid eager to claim he is the equal of his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato), and he has two close calls involving Italians after Cosimo goes to jail. What parts of this tale are true or invented is difficult to fathom. For audiences who may suffer a crisis of conscience in thinking that the filmmaker is exploiting the Amatos or Pio, Carpignano told an Italian interviewer that he and the boy shared a “legamo fraterno,” a brotherly bond.

A Ciambra has variously been described as a “coming-of-age” movie with a social conscience, and a film inspired by Italian Neo-Realism. Martin Scorsese came onboard as executive producer after watching Carpignano’s short on the same subject. A Ciambra could be described as a less sanguinary version of GoodFellas (1990), in which Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) aspires to becoming a “made man” in the Mafia. Pio is an illiterate boy who, rather than attending school, hustles and steals, with the silent consent of his family, in order to reach a similar rank in his Roma community. He is portrayed dispassionately by Carpignano.

Comparing the entire gritty enterprise that is this movie to Italian Neo-Realism or social realism is to misunderstand both genres, which are comprised of films that engage in social and political critique. A Ciambra takes no apparent point-of-view. As for being socially conscious, the film places the audience in an amoral universe, just as Scorsese’s crime films do; one could argue that this is Pio’s milieu, although the audience, with no objective view of Roma society in Italy is, at best, being subjected to a rather dull story about an equivocal protagonist, not unlike the sociopaths in GoodFellas or, at worst, to yet another stereotypical view of the Roma as little more than serial criminals. In the last third of the 120-minute film, a narrative begins to form that follows the pattern of the coming-of-age drama, in which Pio must choose between loyalty to his clan and the honorable thing that would set him apart. All of us have watched enough of Scorsese to know how that will end.

A Ciambra is Italy’s entry for Best Foreign-Language Film at the Academy Awards, a disturbing choice given the results of a 2015 Pew Research Center study of attitudes toward Roma people in seven EU countries. It states that 85 percent of Italians harbor “unfavorable views,” the highest percentage in the study, despite the Roma having a relatively small population there. Amnesty International has reported on the destruction of Roma camps throughout Italy in 2017 that have left many women and children homeless. Audiences will have to decide how this squares with a film in which the only concession to a representation of Roma culture is to romanticize the itinerant lifestyle of the past.

In the last third of the film, Pio dreams of the gray horse, and follows it; he arrives at a campfire where he sees a much younger version of his grandfather, the one shown in the opening scene. The horse appears again when the boy faces his existential crisis, right after the Amato patriarch reminisces about the days when the Roma “were free” and “didn’t have any bosses.” Pio turns away from the horse, and toward his future; in another movie, that gesture would carry some sense of remorse, a childhood too swiftly coming to a close. In the last shot of A Ciambra, the camera is behind the boy, penning him in or pushing him forward—and it never retreats.

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