A Chiara Jonas Carpignano Swamy Rotolo

A Chiara is a subversive take on the mafia film

Though it has a riveting narrative (told from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl), the film leans heavily into naturalism, subverting the romanticism often associated with the gangster genre.

Few sub-genres are as oversaturated as the gangster film. While it’s still possible to take a fresh look at the underbelly of organized crime, it’s rare to see a new point of view. With A Chiara, writer-director Jonas Carpignano takes a unique approach as he redirects the attention away from the criminal activity and focuses on the family. From the point of view of a mafioso’s middle daughter, 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), pieces together that her father Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) is involved in trafficking drugs after a failed assassination attempt by a rival pusher. 

Much of the film’s first act occurs at a birthday party for Chiara’s older sister, Giulia (Grecia Rotolo). A DJ plays games in a crowded hall as platters of food are served on a long, overcrowded table. It feels extravagant but also earthy and familial. Men stand around entrances and glance over the proceedings. Even if they’re also family, they seem somehow outside of the action; watchers and conspirators. Chiara is likely used to their presence, barely takes note of them but knows better than to smoke where they can see. The relatively long sequence is intimate and celebratory but also tense. Claudio seems to be the centre point of everyone’s attention in many ways. He’s a quiet man who doesn’t want the spotlight; one has a sense for those around him that he is that shining light, and everyone wants a share of that warmth. 

Later that night, Chiara is woken up by her parents fighting. As she follows them outside, her father climbs over the fence. As her mother circles back to the front of the building, their car explodes. In the incoming hours and days, Chiara will be thrust into the realization that her father is a fugitive from the law and sought after by rivals and police alike. She starts skipping school and chasing down people who may be involved, hoping to reunite with her father. 

Director Carpignano decided to cast non-actors in the roles in this film, but you’d hardly know it. The acting all around is strong and firmly rooted in the experiences of the script. The young lead actress Swamy Rotolo is particularly intense — a driving force of adolescent rage and anxiety. Much like her father’s quietness, she often embodies a steely gaze that seems unwaveringly experienced. Despite her ignorance of her father’s work, there’s a clear duality in their actions and temperament. 

Though it has a riveting narrative, the film leans heavily into naturalism, subverting the romanticism often associated with the gangster film genre. The film captures the day-to-day life of a family that relies on criminal activity to survive but not necessarily thrive. There’s an air of conspiracy and a threat of violence to even the most mundane interactions. While the film leaves Claudio’s work off-screen for nearly the entire running time, his work nonetheless infects all aspects of his family’s life. Their closeness, which at first felt heartwarming, grows increasingly claustrophobic as it becomes apparent that no one outside the family is to be trusted. 

Chiara’s journey from hardened child to confused young adult is often harrowing, wrought with constant change and conflict. As we see her father in her face and her behaviour, her bullishness and flouting of authority are well-grounded in family life. Yet, the film never loses touch with the fact that she’s a child whose impulsiveness puts herself and her family in danger. In a car ride with her older sister, she fails to pick up on the cues to be quiet and internalize what she’s experiencing. She’s brought into the fold of the family business, not with open arms, but with further silence. 

With incredible cinematography and an even richer soundscape, A Chiara is well worth seeing on the big screen. While this isn’t director Jonas Carpignano’s first film, it marks the arrival of a significant new talent as part of a larger wave of young Italian filmmakers telling new stories about their lives. It’s a rich and rewarding family film wrapped in some naturalistic genre elements. ■

A Chiara, directed by Jonas Carpignano

A Chiara is screening in Montreal theatres now.

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