A Chiara: One of 2021 Best Films–Interview with the Director Jonas (A Ciambra) Carpignano

Writer-director Jonas Carpignano has scored at the Cannes Film Fest with A Chiara, winning the Europa Cinemas Cannes Label nod for best European film at Directors’ Fortnight, the festival’s independent parallel section.

Carpignano took the same prize for his former film, A Ciambra, which was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, in 2017.

A Chiara focuses on a 16-year-old daughter and her growing realization that her beloved father may be part of the local criminal organization. Set in the “hardscrabble underside” of the Calabrian city of Gioia Tauro, A Chiara delivers a complex and ultimately realistic picture.

Created at the Directors’ Fortnight in 2003, the Label’s juries are made up of managers of theaters belonging to the Europa Cinemas Network. Label movies receive incentives for their promotion. Europa Cinemas exhibitors are also encouraged to extend Label-winning titles’ run at their theaters.

This is a work of fiction but Carpignano clearly knows the location and the situation so well that he creates a very immersive feeling.

The story of the gradual empowerment of the young female character and her relationship with her father and her extended family is brilliantly structured.

The film benefits from its non-professional cast and imaginative sound design.

Part of Trilogy?

Do you see A Chiara as the third part of a triptych which began with Mediterranea (2015), and A Ciambra (2017)?

I arrived in Gioia Tauro, Calabria, in 2010. Two African migrants had just been attacked and beaten and this resulted in a violent riot which was the subject of A Chjàna, the short
film I directed before Mediterranea. Soon after I moved there and later became acquainted with Pio and the Roma community which I eventually filmed in my film A Ciambra.

At first, in 2010, I didn’t have the idea of a triptych in mind at all, I just wanted to learn more about the riots. But pretty soon, I knew that I wanted to make three films about three facets of this town. The first was the African community, the second was the
Roma community, which used to be nomadic but became sedentary and settled in Gioia Tauro.

The “Malavita”, the people involved in the underground economy created by the mafia. I knew I was going to make these three films without knowing exactly what form it would take, but I finished the first treatment of A Chiara 3 weeks before I started shooting A Ciambra in 2016.

Gioia Tauro as laboratory of globalization

Without a doubt Gioia Tauro is a microcosm of a larger social and economic trend that in these days is usually called globalization. But I think the only way to achieve the universal is
to be precise, intimate, and local. This town has something very particular in the way that these phenomena intersect. There is the underground economy, the great poverty ignored by the
state, and to top that, the mass arrival of migrants. Before 2012, almost nobody spoke about it, while I got to know the hard daily lifemof Koudous Seihon, who had made this trip from Africa. His reality, his experience and that of his friends became the reality of the film. With A Ciambra and A Chiara, the process was similar.

Characters from previous features

I never wanted to make one big film which would combine these three aspects of life in Gioia Tauro: the migrants, the Roma, and the mafia. I wanted to talk about individuals, not generic subjects. And yet I wanted to imply the existence of a larger connection by making some characters reappear, even if briefly, in each film. It was obvious to me that, to make this point,
the characters from my first films: Ayiva from Mediterranea, Pio and his cousin Patatina from A Ciambra had to appear in this new film. (1) “Malavita” : criminal life, mafia life

Swamy Rotolo, who plays Chiara?

I was extremely lucky. In 2015 I was preparing A Ciambra and we did a small casting because one scene, in the school, required
extras. Swamy came along with her aunt. She was 9 or 10 at the
time. I’d just finished the screenplay of A Chiara. The second I
saw her, I knew she was Chiara. I happened to know her aunt
very well, her cousins, her family. Over the years, I saw her grow
up and I never changed my mind. Gioia Tauro is a small town
and I often saw her on the promenade, eating ice cream with her
friends or pizza with her father. I got to know her better and I
rewrote the script with her in mind. In the film, all the characters are her real family.

Writing the script? Shooting?

Everything about the family is real, but I included them in a
fictional narrative structure. So, it wasn’t hard to get them to
act because there are scenes that depict what they’d already
experienced. For example, obviously Swamy has never had a
confrontation with her father about mafia activities, like in the
film, but she has had face-to-face encounters with her father on
other subjects, and it wasn’t very difficult for her to draw on that.

Actor and the script?

The actors never read the script. Claudio and Antonio had an idea of the film’s structure and subject matter. But nobody
knew the story in detail. Each actor at the beginning of filming
knew exactly what that character would know. Claudio knew, for
example, that there was a bunker under the villa. But we never
told Chiara about it. During the shoot, we kept telling her: “Look
at this wall, look closely, there’s something to be found”. She
ended up finding the bunker on her own when we shot the scene
where she was supposed to find the bunker. My relationship with the actors is always very deep. We never stopped seeing each other outside of the shoot, even when it was interrupted by the pandemic. I talked to her constantly about the film.

Working with same crew?

Most of my crew worked on Mediterranea and A Ciambra. This time, the shoot was particularly intense because of the lockdown. We went from a crew of 30 people to 9.

Sound and music of the film?

Sometimes the voices fade behind the music, as if to share Chiara’s thoughts and emotions. The music in the film is there to align the viewer with Chiara. The pop music places us squarely in the cultural landscape of what girls this age in Gioia Tauro (and elsewhere) listen to. There is a lot of Italian trap music, and all of these songs
corresponds exactly to what Swamy and her friends listen to in
real life. With the score we wanted to give the audience access to
Chiara’s inner-life, what’s going in in her head. With Benh Zeitlin(2)
and Dan Romer, who composed the soundtrack, we didn’t want
music which would bring pathos or manipulate the audience, we
wanted it to mirror her emotional state.

Realistic and poetic film

For example, the bunker Chiara goes into also echoes the underground lair where her father hides out. Ultimately this is why I don’t make documentaries. To me, the
documentary-eque realism is a starting point, but the more
scripted elements allow the film to, hopefully, operate on a
thematic level that deepens the observational side. Examples
would be the recurring idea of sleep in the film and the bunker.
It could have been anywhere, but the fact that it is underground,
and in the heart of the family home, brings an extra dimension.
In your film, the mafia’s crimes and violence are always offscreen.

I’ve spent 10 years in Gioia Tauro. Any search engine associates
this town with the mafia. As soon as I mention its name, people
talk to me about the mafia. As if there were shootings in the
street all the time. But none of that ever happens. I never saw the intense violence associated with the idea of mafia in Gioia Tauro. For me, A Chiara is much more a film about family than about the mafia. Of course, the mafia culture permeates many
aspects of everyday life. But it is not dominant
in the way that most people think. When I see
movies about the mafia with men driving around
in sports cars with guns in their back pockets, it
doesn’t correspond to what I’ve seen in my time
in Gioia.

law referred to in the film?

I was working on Mediterranea when I first read a long article about this law. The ’Ndrangheta, the mafia in Calabria, is considered one of the most impermeable because unlike the Sicilian mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra or the American mafias, it is based solely on blood ties and family in the strict sense of the word. It is impossible to join a clan if you do not have a
blood relationship with its members. Because of this, there are never any turncoats in this mafia, because nobody turns against their own family. To break this circle the state and the
social services of Calabria have decided to take children away from their families until they are 18. Ideally, to give them a chance. Now, on one hand, I understand the logic behind the law, and I understand why it can be effective. That
said, I have always been very skeptical of this
approach from an emotional standpoint. Living
in Gioia Tauro, I’ve seen the profound emotional effect a sudden change in life on a 10-yearold girl whose father had been arrested. I will never forget her face when she realized
that she would not see her father for a very long time, and as she started to grapple with what this means for her family. I’ve also come into contact with people who were part of
this program and these two things together
shaped the point of view of this film. I knew
then that the best way to talk about my
doubts and my skepticism was through the
eyes of a very young girl. The mafia has a very
patriarchal structure, with fathers passing on
power to their sons, or nephews, etc. And
making the film from the point of view of a
girl allowed us to escape the preconceived
notions one has about mafia families and tell
the story from the point of view of a family,
not a just a mafia family, but a family.
Can we define A Chiara as a film about the
courage it takes to face the truth?
It’s a film about family, about father-daughter
relations. It’s a film which talks about
how people learn to find their own moral
compass, and how they lean to navigate their
surroundings. If I had to find a common thread
in my three films, that would be it.