In his new film The Ciambra, director Jonas Carpignano offers an arresting, uncompromising and hugely compelling story about a marginalised community living in southern Italy. Featuring several characters from his neo-realist debut feature Mediterranea which tackled the thorny issue of the European refugee crisis with a great deal of empathy and humanitarian reverence for its protagonists, the film is a welcome return for a filmmaker who keeps on pushing the boundaries with each new release, making him one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation, impressing even Martin Scorsese who is cited as executive producer on this new production.
Taking us right into the heart of a small Romani community living in the Calabrian town of Gioia Tauro the film, which stars mostly non professional actors, including several members of the now infamous Amato family, presents a beautifully executed coming of age story about a boy on the cusp of manhood, struggling to find his rightful place within his community.
Fourteen year old Pio (Pio Amato) is having a tough time proving himself to those closest to him. In between playing truant and staying out late at night, Pio hopes to one day be allowed by his petty criminal brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) and his friends to join them on their illicit nightly excursions stealing cars and anything else they can lay their hands on, but when the latter is arrested and sent to prison alongside the boy’s father, Pio feels duty bound to his mother Iolanda (Iolanda Amato) and younger siblings to take on the breadwinner role and soon finds himself stealing and dealing to make ends meet.
In the absence of a father figure, Pio befriends resourceful African migrant Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) who agrees to help him out of a tough spot out of sheer respect for the teenager’s perseverance and determination, and undoubtedly because he sees himself in him. Pio soon builds a strong bond with Ayiva and his refugee friends, but loyalties are promptly put to the test when both Casimo and his father are unexpectedly released from prison, presenting Pio with a painful dilemma.
Carpignano creates an air of adventure, urgency and even suspense in this beautifully nuanced neo-realist drama which isn’t afraid of resorting to artifice in order to advance its dense narrative. Injecting himself right at the heart of both marginalised communities, Carpignano is not only commendably familiar with the lives of those he chooses to depict on screen, but he also does this with a huge amount of respect for their way of life, and without a single hint of judgement.
With moments of sheer magical realist brilliance, The Ciambra certainly manages to surpass itself in its representation of those on the fringes of mainstream society. Avoiding facile expositional tropes throughout, Carpignano should be commended for trusting his audiences with a screenplay which is as sparse in its dialogue as it is dense in its free-flowing narrative. Add to that some impeccable performances throughout, and from the Amato clan in particular, and you’re left with surely one of the best and most relatable films of the year so far.
The Ciambra is out on DVD now.