During a couple of brief scenes in "Mediterranea," the 2015 feature debut of writer-director Jonas Carpignano, a fast-talking, chain-smoking, barely teenage tough guy made the main character's face light up, and made audiences sit up and take notice. Played by the charismatic Pio Amato, he's now the focus of Carpignano's robust and lyrical second film, along with more than a dozen of the boy's real-life relatives, Romanies who live in southern Italy.
Like its predecessor, also set in the margins of the city of Gioia Tauro, "A Ciambra" is a work of fiction with a vibrant and gritty documentary edge. Though the two films can be viewed as companion pieces, each stands on its own. The new work was Italy's submission to this year's foreign-language category of the Oscars, and though it didn't nab a nomination, it secures the U.S.-educated, Italy-based Carpignano's profile as an astute practitioner of modern-day neorealism.
The earlier outing explored the experience of Ayiva (the excellent Koudous Seihon), a newly arrived immigrant to Italy from Burkina Faso. The friendship between Ayiva and Pio has deepened in the new film, and ultimately presents a moral quandary for the 14-year-old Pio as he strives to prove his know-how and resourcefulness to his family. On the outskirts of the city, characters played by the Amatos scrape by in an underground economy built on suitcase theft and ransoms for stolen cars. As one sorry traveler from Turin (Paolo Carpignano, the director's father) learns firsthand, Pio is a take-no-prisoners negotiator.
With his streetwise instincts, the rangy teen is thoroughly convinced of his readiness to step into the ranks of adulthood. It becomes a matter of urgency — in his eyes, if no one else's — after the carabinieri's latest sweep of his crumbling apartment complex puts his father (Rocco Amato) and brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) behind bars. Pio jumps into action to bring home the bacon for his formidable but warmhearted mother (Iolanda Amato).
Schooled by Cosimo in hot-wiring cars but not able to read, Pio turns to Ayiva whenever he's in a jam. In his own way, Ayiva too is an operator, but as a surrogate brother he's far more level-headed and gentle than Cosimo, and always has Pio's best interests at heart. Pio alone among his extended clan knows the local community of Ghanaians, Nigerians and Burkinabes. To his parents, cousins and siblings, these relatively recent immigrants are simply "the Africans," viewed with fear and contempt from the Romanies' slightly higher position in the hierarchy of social outcasts.
On the other side of the equation, the Amatos' characters defer to "the Italians" — the mafiosi who provide work and protection and who could turn their muscle against "the Gypsies" if not shown the proper respect. In a moment of clarity, the Amatos' characters' fading patriarch, Emiliano (U Ciccarredu), reminds his grandson Pio of the Romani people's "us against the world" credo. With tribal loyalties and communal rituals at the heart of this coming-of-age story, it's easy to see why Martin Scorsese was drawn to the material and signed on as an executive producer.
Through Tim Curtin's kinetic handheld camerawork, Carpignano immerses the viewer in Pio's experience. "A Ciambra" could have been more concise and better structured — a true sense of dramatic tension arises only in the late going. But the director's connection to his characters and setting is never in doubt. Whether the gathering is a raucous family supper, a solemn funeral procession, or a comic interplay among cursing, smoking kids, the movie is an act of discovery, spirited and unflinching.
Amid the verisimilitude of location shooting and a cast of mostly nonprofessionals playing fictionalized versions of themselves, Carpignano inserts poetic touches. He turns the dusty streets into visions of an idyllic hillside where a young Emiliano (Francesco Berlingeri) camps with his nomadic clan. Sometimes his dapple-gray horse appears to Pio. Well-deployed close-ups register the teen's acute sensitivity, his bond with Emiliano and an instinctive understanding of tradition.
Yet Pio is also an unworldly kid who panics in the confined space of an elevator or in a high-speed train. He's still learning to navigate a world that's already, in crucial ways, bigger for him than for the rest of his family. "Once," his grandfather tells him, "we were free, always on the road." That open-air freedom, with its wooden carts and saddleless horses, might have vanished, but with his resilience and boundless energy, Pio creates his own freedom — for a while, anyway. He moves fluidly between worlds that are not supposed to intersect. He makes friends along the way and, until he's forced back inside the lines of division, he's free.
In Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles