Jonas Carpignano’s sophomore feature, A Ciambra, follows Pio (Pio Amato), a Romani kid in southern Italy who’s doing his damn best to grow up as fast as he can. No more than fourteen, he smokes, drinks and stirs up trouble at every turn, idolizing his older brother, a small-time crook who, with their father, eventually gets arrested for their latest heist.
A staple on the international film festival circuit over the last year (Cannes, Toronto, Chicago Int’l), this is a film at a remove. We follow Pio from the rowdy dinner table he shares with a large extended family; to the nightclub where the bartenders serve him without a second thought; to the African refugee camps where he drums up extra cash with a few quick “errands.” But we are never really invited into Pio’s experience, instead kept at arm’s length from the world he inhabits.
That world is multifaceted, and its our view from above as he navigates moving between them that keeps A Ciambra such an interesting watch. Who is Pio when he’s sitting among his sprawling family at the dinner table, drinking and laughing and fighting and shouting amongst the raucous comings and goings of his tribe? Who is he with his older brother Cosimo and his mafia contacts, teaching Pio to hot-wire cars and pull a fast one on unsuspecting locals? Who is he with Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), the Ghanaian immigrant who gets him out of more than one bind once Cosimo goes away?
The answer, of course, is that he’s not entirely sure who he is in any of these worlds. He’s a kid, after all, and much as he’d like to pretend that he has it all figured out, that couldn’t be further from the truth. With Cosimo and their father away, Pio puffs up his chest and has big plans to bring home the bacon for his grandmother and cousins. And at first, his low-level crimes seem to be paying off; he slyly lifts a suitcase off a train car when the owner isn’t looking, and sells the guy’s iPad for a small profit. But not without Ayiva’s help, and when he recommends they hit the next town over for a buyer, Pio reminds him how afraid he is of the local high-speed trains. Like a kid, afraid of the dark.
In the end, A Ciambra doesn’t exactly go anywhere. The story arc here isn’t what’s important, though (a family crisis brings Cosimo and their father home, for one; Pio’s petty crimes cross a line that puts his whole family in hot water). As the film comes to a close, Carpignano uses the final shot to illustrate in a single visual the entire preceding journey. A cynical take would see it as contrite oversimplification; if the film before it hadn’t expressed everything we need to know by now, it’s a bit presumptuous to assume a single take will resolve it.
But here, it works. From our vantage point, Pio’s been through a lot, and maybe learned a thing or two about himself and his place in the world along the way. He may be in less of a hurry to race into manhood, or be better prepared for it when he gets there. We can’t be entirely sure, but that’s not the point. As Pio considers his options in this final scene in the film, it’s as if he’s finally taking a step out of the fog, this space in between childhood and adulthood.
A Ciambra opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.