As far as 15-year-old girls go, the titular Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) seems to have it all figured out. She spends her time going to the gym, school, scrolling through her phone, catching up with friends, and shares a blanket on the couch with her two sisters. Life for Chiara seems cosy, comfortably predictable and void of conflict. However, this is just her perception of reality. Culminating his unofficial trilogy of films set in the Italian region of Calabria, director Jonas Carpignano ('Mediterranea', 'A Ciambra') portrays an intimate, naturalistic and sometimes harrowing tale of a teenage girl, whose life is upended in the blink of an eye.
'A Chiara' starts in a not-too-dissimilar fashion to the wedding scene in 'The Deer Hunter', with Chiara and her family celebrating the 18th birthday of her older sister, Giulia. The whole extended family and friends are there, toasting to Giulia, having dance-offs, eating, drinking, and whatever other celebratory exercises you can think of. The scene stretches out close to 20 minutes, in what more often than not is seen in cinema these days as a few jump cuts and quick edits, letting the audiences know that there was a party, and nothing of note happened. But Carpignano is purposeful in elongating the scene. The closeness, warmth and togetherness of Chiara's family really shine through, and it's through this overly natural set piece that Carpignano is then able to turn this world onto Chiara's head.
This film is shown completely through her eyes, something that Carpignano not only knows how to harness but also how to manipulate. The crucial turning point in this film is when Claudio (Claudio Rotolo), Chiara's father, is accused of drug trafficking and then suddenly, he disappears from Chiara's life. No 15-year-old girl should have to face these consequences, and certainly shouldn't be expected to carry the burden her loving and present father has left behind. Chiara is left to make a choice: believe what she so badly wants not to be true, or continue living her life in a bubble of ignorance.
Chiara's glass ceiling of naivety is shattered, her perception of reality is tested, and the true reality she must face is no easy task. When her world is destabilised, the choices she makes will ultimately pave the path for the rest of her life, and the pieces of her shattered past are painful to handle.
Carpignano constructs a beautifully intimate tale, with the audience sitting atop of Chiara's shoulders throughout. The barren portside setting of Calabria mixed with the melancholic colour schemes paint a picture of a town that is broken and torn by crime. However, Carpignano's frequent handheld close-ups, contemplative silence and well-choreographed blockings make for a contrasting emotional intimacy that allows the audience to sympathise with Chiara. It's not that she is trying her best to do the right thing, nor is she a particularly likeable character. But she is caring, and by Carpignano framing her version of her father's story in a non-judgemental light, so too are we expected to feel the same for her.
When her world is destabilised, the choices she makes will ultimately pave the path of the rest of her life, and the pieces of her shattered past are painful to handful
In truth, 'A Chiara' has all the ingredients of a well-crafted, emotional and empathetic drama that hits all the right notes. Swamy Rotolo is fantastic and she belies her age, commanding the screen and demanding your attention. The touching togetherness of her family is truly remarkable, and that makes complete sense when, in actuality, they are all related in real life. I haven't seen a family this talented since the Estevezs/Sheens. Bravo to Carpignano, who manages to capture that realistic tenderness and care.
And yet, it just didn't work as well as I wanted it to. There are several hints throughout the film that there is something bigger at play here, but that is just not the case. I understand that this is mostly down to the film being shown through Chiara's eyes, but for me, it just needed a little more. There is not much in the way of twists or turns, with the dark underbelly of the family seemingly there from fairly early on in the piece. Likewise, it clocks in at just over two hours, which for a slow and unassuming narrative felt just a little too long. A sharper and more controlled final edit would probably bump this film up another star.
Nonetheless, 'A Chiara' is a really worthwhile film. It's full of energy and Italian flavour, with enough care and attention to detail that brings Carpignano up as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. He generously cares about his characters, his settings, and the emotions he wants to leave his audience with, and in that, he greatly succeeds.