The Ciambra (A Ciambra)
Italy (2017) Dir. Jonas Carpignano
Life is about the choices we make, learning from the bad, and building on the foundation of the good. But sometimes the influence of our surroundings and family situation is so overwhelming that we are likely to be destined to follow a path in life that will be our downfall unless an intervening presence can steer us right again.
Set in the Romani Gioia Tauro community in Calabria, Southern Italy, three generations of the gypsy Amato family all live in the one house, their reputation as ne’er-do-wells stretching wide among the locals and the police alike. 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato) idolises his older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato) and is at that age where he thinks he should be treated as an adult and be more involved in the family activities.
Cosimo is arrested as is their father Rocco (Rocco Amato) and while his mother Iolanda (Iolanda Amato) is the de facto head of the household, Pio decides this is his chance to step up and prove himself. In trying to help raise some money to pay off the legal notices the family has incurred, Pio does some jobs with Ghanaian immigrant Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), finding himself with some important decisions to make.
I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that most of the cast members share the same name – this is because in true neo-realist style, Jonas Carpignano didn’t use seasoned actors, he instead used the entire real life Amato family for The Ciambra. Legend has it when Carpignano was making his first short film, a car full of equipment was stolen and in going to retrieve it, he met the Amatos.
The gypsy community doesn’t have the best reputation in the world and it is unlikely this film is going to change that by basically living up to every negative stereotype you can imagine. From the outset, no punches are pulled and we are told that this will be a frank depiction of their lifestyle and behaviour and it isn’t pretty, often bordering on shocking.
Case in point – I don’t know about anyone else but seeing kids who look to be as young as four or five smoking without being admonished by furious parents is beyond belief yet this happens two minutes into the film. Pio is also shown drinking wine and beer without anyone batting an eyelid as does his siblings closer to his age, and this is before they open their potty mouths.
Revelling in their criminal behaviour also appears to be a family trait and the Amatos have forged connections with the local Mafia, doing jobs for them that they’d rather not get their hands dirty with. Then there is the African community who are held in less regard by the Romanis which makes things difficult for Pio once he is befriended by Ayiva and his fellow refugees.
The irony here is how a caste system of racism is rife in Italy with the Italians treating the Gypsies with the same contempt they hold for the Africans but if this seems lost on the Amatos, they are simply playing their role in this unpleasant hierarchy. Yet, of the three groups the refugees are the best behaved although not completely squeaky clean, fitting more into the Del Boy role of dodgy deals where nobody gets hurt.
Ayiva therefore assumes the role of the conscience of this tale and the closest thing Pio has to a positive role model. Even though Ayiva is complicit in adding to Pio’s criminal record, he does do his best to encourage the lad to avoid trouble but it falls on deaf ears since this is the same as Pio’s family telling him to stay home. But Pio’s persistence pays off and many of Ayiva’s circle offer friendship and sanctuary when things between Pio and family overheat.
Pio is in a unenviable position for strong-minded and impressionable boy – living with a family for whom crime is at the centre of their existence and is allowed to be party to this yet is also told “Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you” whenever the action is about pick up. Growing up in such a lawless environment is shown here as a tragic and unfulfilling life, engendering unhealthy and anti-social attitudes which will be his downfall, and when the final frame rolls, it seems that nothing has been learned.
Refreshingly, Carpignano isn’t adopting a judgemental stance with this film, explaining the bleak and hopeless climax that is as chilling as it is disappointing. The whole tone is nihilistic and fatalistic in the resolute defiant swagger of the Amato family, buttressed by the cinema vérité style of the jittery, intrusive handheld camerawork. This is neo-realism that borders scarily on being a documentary, such is the naturalism of the presentation.
Some of the characters originally appeared in Carpignano’s first feature Mediterranea, about Ayiva’s arrival in Italy having escaped from Burkina Faso, namely Ayiva and Pio. The former’s subtle fusion of humility and sagacious wisdom born from adversary is wonderfully essayed by Koudous Seihon, whilst Pio Amato delivers a suitably impressive incendiary turn as the confused, callow teen.
That the majority of the cast are non-professional doesn’t show at all, making this easier to believe everything we see, as unpalatable as much of it might be. I hope the young kids smoking and drinking was purely fiction but the lines are so blurred it probably is true, but both scenarios opens up numerous questions about what Carpignano is trying to say with this film, as much as it does about Romani parenting.
As a stark piece of social commentary, The Ciambra is also very unflattering with only Ayiva coming across as likeable and won’t help improve the gypsy image in any way. But as a gritty reflection of the vagaries of life caused by one bad decision set in a world unfamiliar to most of us, this desperate and dark journey has tremendous artistic and educational value.