Review: A teen seeks the truth about her family in tough Italian drama ‘A Chiara’

Strands of hair blow into Swamy Rotolo's face as she looks somberly forward in a scene from the 2021 drama “A Chiara.”
Swamy Rotolo in the movie “A Chiara.”

At 15, you’re still a baby to some while to others, just old enough to know better. Usually these interested parties are relatives who carry their own reasons for either prolonging a loved one’s innocence or hurrying up their maturity. But for the forthright middle daughter of a close-knit family in filmmaker Jonas Carpignano’s tough, vibrating Italian drama “A Chiara,” that adolescent shedding of naivete can’t come fast enough.

Dark-haired, with piercing eyes, Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is in many ways a typical teenager: glued to her phone and friends, quick with attitude, sneaky with e-cigarettes, and rigorous about her appearance. Yet she also cherishes what a cocoon of love and support her family is — from her rambunctious kid sister to her soft-spoken and emotional dad Claudio (Claudio Rotolo), to the extended clan in their seaside Calabrian town. So when it comes to celebrating the 18th birthday of her older sister Giulia (Giulia Rotolo), Chiara throws herself into the planned blowout with plenty of energy and affection. After all, she’ll be getting the same attention and presents when she reaches that milestone.

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But later that night, a car explodes outside their home, and her dad disappears. Now mom’s and Giulia’s reassurances sound patronizing and hollow, and more disturbingly, suggest an effort to keep Chiara in the dark. The stares and whispers at school are bad enough, but when Chiara realizes how little she knew about her own family — and the criminality that dominates their lives — it’s as if a hole has opened in her world, one she’ll be forced to ignore, repair, or walk through.

“A Chiara” is U.S.-born, Italy-based Carpignano’s third feature. If it’s your first acquaintance with his work, you’re in for a roughly evocative, suspenseful tale in the same compelling vein as the Dardenne brothers’ intimate, propulsive and nonjudgmental character studies of desperation and morality. (It won last year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.) In this case, anchored by Swamy Rotolo’s commanding turn, the filmmaker is examining the peculiarly emboldening indignance of an adolescent abruptly stripped of her emotional security, and unafraid of the consequences that come with asserting herself.

But to know where Carpignano is coming from is to see “A Chiara” as another kind of third film, one that completes an unofficial neorealist trilogy about family and identity in contemporary southern Italy, specifically the mixed-culture, Mafia-controlled port town of Gioia Tauro. His 2015 debut feature “Mediterranea” focused on a pair of African migrants trying to make a home there amidst a hostile reception, while “A Ciambra” (2017) took the vantage point of an impressively opportunistic 14-year-old Roma boy, part of a group whose outsiderness is ingrained. The leads of those films, Koudous Seihun and Pio Amato, respectively, were discoveries of Carpignano’s from their communities, and they appear in all three films — although knowledge of their characters isn’t necessary to follow Chiara’s journey.

His “A Chiara” star is also new to film — first noticed at an extras casting call for his last movie, he wrote the part with her in mind — and the onscreen family is Rotolo’s in real life. Such commitment to local verisimilitude is a sign of how much Carpignano cares about details in his indie cinematic universe, but he’s also seriously adept at eliciting rich performances out of nonprofessionals, on top of making one feel like a fly on the wall in private spaces.

It’s not that his movies come off like documentaries, however — there’s a dream sequence in “A Chiara,” and occasional poetic touches to the handheld cinematography, music choices and sound design that feel like externalizations of Chiara’s inner life. But what’s best about “A Chiara” is its totality of naturalism and subjectivity — how it humanely complicates a teenager’s newfound self-possession, so that we admire her quest for clarity and reckoning about her family, while worrying how it will affect the decision she makes about her future.

'A Chiara'

In Italian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Playing: Starts May 27, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood