A minor character in writer-director Jonas Carpignano’s first feature, 2015’s Mediterranea, 14-year-old Pio (Pio Amato), a Romani living in the Italian port town of Gioia Tauro, takes center stage for Carpignano’s follow-up, the bleak but heartfelt coming-of-age drama A Ciambra. Born into a sprawling family of petty criminals living on the edges of society, Pio has already grown up far more than any kid should by the time the movie begins, and he’s even more eager to prove himself as the man of his chaotic household once his father and his older brother get sent to jail for minor crimes. To that end, he forms a partnership with Burkinabe immigrant Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), one of the main characters of Mediterranea, finding a new, slightly less belligerent male role model.
Some of the scenes between Pio and Ayiva are sweet in a sort of disreputable way, as they scheme to make money for Pio’s family by selling stolen goods. But this isn’t the kind of movie in which everything works out in the end, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Pio’s life and his newfound friendship are headed down some dark paths. Carpignano takes his time getting to that point, though, and the two-hour movie meanders through various vignettes of daily life in Pio’s close-knit community, not all of which are compelling. Carpignano works mainly with non-actors, and Pio’s entire family is played by the real-life Amato family, mostly using their real names, although the individual relationships aren’t always clear. That gives the movie an enhanced sense of authenticity, which makes it even more jarring when Carpignano occasionally shifts to a magical-realist tone, putting Pio face to face with visions of a young version of his grandfather and a majestic horse that trots through the town’s crumbling streets.
Those moments are too infrequent to reframe the movie as a fable, and it’s most effective as a naturalist portrayal of life in a very specific community, indebted both to the neo-realist films of its home country and more recent European realist filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers (Carpignano uses plenty of Dardenne-style follow shots as he tracks his protagonist around town). Star Amato can be a bit inscrutable, but the character is still struggling with his own identity, and he doesn’t always understand his own actions. Pio tries hard to radiate toughness, smoking and drinking and brazenly committing small crimes, but he’s also afraid of elevators and moving trains, and is still a naïve kid in many ways. Thanks to his community’s rejection of societal structure, he doesn’t even know how to read.
While Mediterranea focused on the plight of refugees and immigrants in a changing Italy, A Ciambra is more about ingrained cultural and social divisions, with the Romani forever set apart from the people they somewhat derisively refer to as “Italians.” Living in poverty and treated as second-class citizens, Pio’s family has plenty in common with Ayiva and his fellow refugees, but Pio’s relatives are just as bigoted toward Africans as Italians are toward Romani. Pio ends up caught in the middle, and while it’s easy to root for him to rise above his background and do the right thing, the strength (and frustration) of A Ciambra is that the movie knows how unlikely that is to happen.