Quickly think of a gangster movie…what’s the first thing that comes to your head? The Godfather? Goodfellas? Scarface? Maybe even Boyz n the Hood? It’s a widely diverse genre, but the missions are generally all pretty similar, focusing on the inner machinations of organized (or sometimes, disorganized) crime, and giving depth to the people so typically demonized for said criminal behavior. One can usually expect a plot of violence, drugs, sex, deception, and probably a good number of Italians scattered throughout. A Chiara (meaning “To Light” in Italian) does none of those things as a gangster movie…save for the fact that there are a metric ton of Italians around, given the film is set in the gritty streets throughout Calabria. It’s a careful, mostly successful deconstruction of what we expect a gangster film to be, and it gives insight into the often overlooked lives of the bystanders affected by lives of crime around them.
Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is a 15-year-old girl living an affluent life in Calabria, wanting for naught and not asking questions about the details of how this lifestyle is afforded by her family. Chiara’s world comes to a screeching halt around her when her father, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) is forced into hiding after being attacked from a rival mafia, revealing himself to his children as a prominent mafioso. When Chiara seeks answers for her father’s disappearance, and what the nature of his work was that led to his abandonment of his family, Chiara faces a fierce backlash from those pleading with her to stop asking questions. Chiara only is only further motivated by this secrecy, and she takes matters into her own hands to learn the truth.
A Chiara is an incredibly slow burn of a film, but it uses this time for the most part to craft a refreshingly introspective take on the gangster movie genre. It has moments of tender compassion that translates wonderfully into making A Chiara more of a family drama than any film akin to The Irishman et al. That doesn’t entirely mean it’s particularly efficient in this at times, as the first 20-25 minutes of the film are packed with filler slice-of-life sequences that go on for far too long before anything of genuine note happens. While the film picks up eventually following this, it hampers the film’s already slow-burn nature into feeling more like a slog than it actually is. There’s a tighter edit to be found here, but luckily, even with this, A Chiara is never boring if only for one crucial element: Swamy Rotolo.
Rotolo, acting alongside her actual family, is a true star in the making. Writer/director Jonas Carpignano rightfully places much of the film’s focus into her hands, or more specifically, her incredibly expressive face (and even better eyebrows, which I wish I had). Chiara is not the sole emotional center of the film, but dear god Rotolo makes sure every moment of screen time she has is hers and hers alone. While not steamrolling by any means, this is simply a performance where you simply can’t take your eyes off of the amount of acting, or lack of that, from Rotolo. Never does it seem like she’s aware of the camera, and that sort of natural strength in an actor speaks volumes over anything flashy or bombastic.
A Chiara is a film that’s very rough around the edges and it’s not interested in being a particularly pretty film to look at. Calabria is starkly beautiful, but dark and gritty, and the intimately rugged cinematography fits the film well. Shot on a combination of 35mm and 16mm film, A Chiara has a very craggy, claustrophobic nature to it visually, continuously closing tighter and tighter into Chiara’s personal bubble of safety that begins to feel less safe as every moment goes on. We do get a fair amount of that trademark early-2010s indie film shaky cam that came across to such blockbusters like The Bourne Ultimatum and The Hunger Games, but I feel as though in this case this style works in creating a colder, less inviting image, which I believe to be the intended effect.
Don’t let the comparisons to blockbusters fool you, though…A Chiara is a much more grounded look at the world of organized crime in Calabria than one might expect. Lacking the pronounced stylization of a more violent, cinematic film, one might be surprised at how much A Chiara is a coming-of-age tale as much as it is a crime drama. Knowledge that you’re going into a creeping, talky character drama helps with the entire experience, and makes A Chiara feel like a more complete one, even if it sometimes has more movie than it has a story to support in it.
There’s an exceptional 95-minute film to be found in A Chiara, but those exceptional 95 minutes are absolutely present in the film’s current, final form. Swamy Rotolo gives an absolutely scene-stealing performance that immediately marks her as a true talent of her generation, particularly among the humble film industry that exists in Southern Italy. If there’s any reason alone to catch the film, it’s to watch raw, unfiltered talent shine through the gritty façade of its 16mm window to its world. Expect a unique deconstruction of the crime drama genre in lieu of something a bit more action heavy, and it’s hard to walk away from A Chiara feeling cheated, especially with Rotolo’s stellar performance.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.