‘A Chiara’ Film Review: Tough, Sensitive Coming-of-Age Drama Flips the Mafia Movie On Its Head

Newcomer Swamy Rotolo gives fierce face and a tender performance as a teen girl who starts asking the wrong questions about her family history

A Chiara

Jonas Carpignano’s third feature film, “A Chiara,” the third film in his loosely networked Calabrian trilogy, is an ambitious genre-melter rendered in his observational, lyrical style.

At once a coming-of-age story and a mafia thriller, “A Chiara” takes a look at organized crime in Southern Italy from the unique perspective of a teenage girl, Chiara (Swamy Rotolo). Her world is turned upside down after her father disappears and she tumbles down the rabbit hole after him, discovering he’s a member of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate. 

Carpignano’s previous two films in the trilogy are 2015’s “Mediterranea,” which followed the experiences of African immigrants in Calabria, and 2017’s “A Ciambra,” executive produced by Martin Scorsese, about a Romani boy growing up too fast. All three films in the trilogy debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and have raked in a slew of awards and nominations for the filmmaker, including the selection of “A Ciambra” as Italy’s Academy Awards submission in 2018. 

In “A Chiara,” which features cameos from the main characters of “Mediterranea” and “A Ciambra” (and landed three 2022 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations), Carpignano once again applies his lens to the underbelly of society in the seaside city of Reggio Calabria, this time through a teenage girl. Carpignano has roots in the Italian film industry through his grandfather Vittorio Carpignano and uncle Luciano Emmer, and his films are a kind of neo-neo-realism for the 2020s: loose, lyrical, and gritty looks at life from those on the margins, steeped in an authentic atmosphere of place. 

Chiara’s family, the Guerrasios, are largely made up by the Rotolo family, non-actors with the exception of Swamy, who made an appearance as Chiara in “A Ciambra,” but has no other screen credits. Father Claudio is played by Claudio Rotolo, uncle Antonio by Antonio Rotolo, and Grecia and Giorgia Rotolo play Chiara’s sisters, Giulia and Giorgia.

There’s indeed an easy, comfortable, and emotional intimacy among the family, but their performances, particularly the lead performance by Swamy Rotolo, are remarkable. She carries the film, and you essentially watch her grow up over the course of two hours, from a light-hearted 15-year-old to a savvy woman, knowing of the darker ways of the world. The essence of the film is Chiara watching and learning, and watching Swamy Rotolo observe is simply a marvel. With her dark eyes and eyebrows, she delivers truly fierce face, like all the great Italian actresses that came before her. 

Carpignano immerses us into the world of the Guerrasio family at Giulia’s 18th birthday party. It’s a long, joyous, and celebratory scene, detailing all the small family dynamics, the loving rivalry between Chiara and Giulia, the close relationship the girls have with their father, who is a quiet, but proud man, and introduces the low-stakes conflict that is Chiara’s uncles threatening to out her to her father as a smoker. 

The party scene lulls the audience into a sense of warm safety, a bubble that’s pierced dramatically, in an almost surreal fashion, when Chiara, curious about comings and goings at her house later that night, wanders into the street and witnesses a car bombing. There’s Chiara before the explosion and Chiara after the explosion, and she’ll never go back to who she was before. 

Chiara’s mother Carmela (Carmela Fumo) assuages her girls that their father is simply away taking care of work, but the car bombing nags at Chiara, and when she stumbles across a damning news report on social media, she sets off on a journey to find out where, and even who, her father is, despite her mother and older sister maintaining the Mafia code of omertà, which only makes Chiara more frustrated and more curious. 

Carpignano and cinematographer Tim Curtin, who also shot “A Ciambra,” keep the audience locked into Chiara’s subjective experience. Curtin’s handheld camera roves over the faces of Chiara’s friends and family, even drifting out over the horizon at times when she feels lost and confused. As the plot takes off, the camera starts to follow her, keeping up with her bobbing ponytail as she moves around the city, banging her way into spaces where she’s not allowed and demanding answers. 

We’re always a bit behind, trying to keep up with the conversations, relationships, and details, mimicking the process that Chiara is going through herself as she tries to glean information about her father from her community, which has become dangerous and untrustworthy. There are moments of dreamlike surreality, which make you question whether what’s on-screen is really happening, like when she discovers a tunnel to an underground bunker, which underscores just how bizarre this entire experience is for her. 

Dan Romer provides an ambient, insistent score to the proceedings, which blends with the American pop music that blares in the gym, at the birthday party, and on the car radio. At times the score drops out, numbing Chiara’s experience, or sounds like ringing in the ears as she dissociates. 

Ultimately, Chiara has to make a choice about the life that she’s inherited through blood, and an existence that could possibly be different. She utilizes her limited agency to pull back the curtain on the life she’s been born into unknowingly, and it’s only with that full knowledge that she’s able to make that choice, an impossible one, for herself. 

In his third film, Carpignano once again uses a tight, intimate character focus to take a wider look at larger political and cultural issues in this region. In the poetically, humanistically crafted “A Chiara,” he also manages to flip the Mafia movie on its head, and in doing so, challenges the mythology that keeps these shadowy systems in power. 

“A Chiara” opens in U.S. theaters May 27.