We need a term for the sort of scripted documentary that’s bubbling up these days from young, independent filmmakers. Like the work of Chloé Zhao, whose The Rider was a standout at Cannes last year, or New York–born Italian-American director Jonas Carpignano’s films, which draw from real life milieus, casting people as themselves and framing their real lives as narrative constructs. “Scripted reality” is a bit too Real Housewives; “arranged documentary,” perhaps? It’s a fine line between letting reality do the work and drawing something distilled and true out of it, and in the case of A Ciambra, Carpignano’s second film (and Italy’s Foreign Oscar contender this year), we get a little of both.
The setting is Calabria, in the south of Italy, near a seaside town called Gioia. The cast are the Amatos, a sprawling clan of Romani descent, or as they’re more commonly known, gypsies. Pio Amato, playing “himself,” is our hero, a gawky, sleepy eyed boy of 14 or so, who has the look of someone yet to fully grow into his face, despite his smoking and drinking and carousing at the local club. In this community, where petty crimes are how one feeds one’s family, and the Mob is always breathing down your neck, the kids are pushed early into mini-adulthood, and boys like Pio learn early on how to hold their liquor and talk down to women. (No wonder the project attracted executive producer Martin Scorsese, despite the subtitles and exotic locale. This is a coming-of-age story straight out of his playbook.)
When Pio’s adult brother and father are arrested, he takes it upon himself to be the man of the house, which sends him on an increasingly reckless path of carjacking and suitcase theft. But despite the colorful portrayal of the real-life Amatos and the ideal of family loyalty that fuels the plot, A Ciambra is perhaps most fascinating as a portrait of an economy. The most dynamic and ultimately moving relationship is between Pio and his friend Ayiva (the excellent Koudous Seihon), a Ghanaian immigrant and one of the rare people Pio feels like he doesn’t need to prove his machismo to. Carpignano gracefully observes symbiosis and rivalry between the Romani and the equally-looked-down-upon African communities, the mishmash of languages that ping-pong around as deals are cut in back alleys, the normie dads who wander into those same alleys to buy $400 Fiats.
But Carpignano can’t help but eventually crank up the drama, I suppose because a film needs a shape, whether it’s a documentary or not. A third-act test of loyalty feels forced in a way that the rest of the plot doesn’t, and artificially cruel to at least one character. But A Ciambra is about its protagonist becoming a man, not necessarily a good man. It’s about the shaky, scary feeling of of crossing the invisible threshold into adulthood, and it scores that feeling with euphoric, dance-floor-ready Euro-pop anthems that belie the comedown crash that’s sure to arrive after the final shot.
As skillful and immersive as it is, I wasn’t sure in the end how Pio’s story ultimately differed from so many other teen-boy twerps we’ve watched grow up onscreen. The film treads familiar territory when it’s trying to carve cinema-worthy myth from its semi-fictitious protagonist’s life, but its more impressionistic, painterly moments are what feel truly fresh. The film’s most memorable sequence takes place at a funeral, and could have been staged exactly the same were the film a straight documentary about the Amatos. For a moment, the plot comes to a standstill, and each member of the family has a moment of their own as individuals outside the collective chaos they’ve been a part of thus far. In that moment, Carpignano hints at a dozen more coming-of-age stories happening in his film’s margins, and the endless push and pull of the flock one comes from.