Italy (2021) Dir. Jonas Carpignano
Teenage curiosity is blight on our lives. We are all keen to know the things adults have kept from us; some can’t seem to wait for the door to the world to open for them and try to gain early entry, rarely with positive results. What makes it worse it when it pertains to our families, where trust should be a primary factor.
On the night of the 18th birthday party for Giulia Guerrasio (Grecia Rotolo), younger sister Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is concerned when her father Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) leaves early. Walking home after the party, Chiara spies Claudio with a dodgy looking man, and later, after witnessing a moment between her parents, Chiara follows Claudio out into the streets where the family car is torched and explodes.
Next morning, everyone carries on as if nothing happened despite Claudio disappearing. Chiara wants answers but nobody is talking, and because she idolises her father, she looks for clues, finding an underground bunker in the house. When she reads a news report implying Claudio is working for the Mafia, Chiara pushes harder to find her father and the truth.
You may have noticed the actors playing father and daughter share the same surname – get used to it as not only are they father and daughter in real life but their entire Rotolo family plays the Guerrasio family. Writer-director Jonas Carpignano has taken the family motif of A Chiara a little too seriously in that respect, but at least it ensures the dynamic between them is genuine, adding to the naturalism of the general mise-en-scene from using non-professional actors.
But this exploration into an imploding family unit is not your usual story – how can it be when the Mafia is involved. Or are they? Carpignano is not just looking at how secrets affect a family but the far-reaching consequences of when gossip reaches the wrong ears, specifically those of the authorities. It is all part of the coming-of-age journey undertaken by our eponymous protagonist, and surprisingly, with no killing involved.
Unfortunately, we have sit through a near 30-minute opening act depicting a day in the life of Chiara before any semblance of a story surfaces. It serves to introduce to Chiara and the family, showcasing the cushy life they lead and the attendant entitlement it begets. The birthday party is a lavish affair with the whole community invited, sowing the seeds of what is to come via Claudio’s shady actions.
We get a sample of Chiara’s testiness and moxie when cousin Antonio (Antonio Rotolo) sees her vaping and chastises her for it, whilst smoking himself. Chiara points out the hypocrisy, but it is different because he is man and she is only 15. And so a pertinent theme is set – Chiara’s age prohibiting her from knowing the truth and being trusted with it. Only she and youngest sister Giorgia (Giorgia Rotolo) are in the dark.
Chiara’s raging ire isn’t quite a wildfire, but it heads that way the more she finds out how open this secret is within the family. Whether she feels betrayed by her father or is appalled at the suggestion of Mafia connections is left open; if it were the latter, it would make the rest of the family feel bad for living a charmed life on dodgy money. Or maybe it is a hit against her social standing, being the daughter of a Mafia employee?
Mother Carmella’s (Carmela Fumo) refusal to discuss it sends Chiara into stroppy teen mode – fed up with being told she won’t understand, yet is expected to be mature enough to let it slide, and being too hot headed to see it’s for her own good. Try as she may, the family line across the board is to keep schtum which only exacerbates Chiara’s anger. When it affects her school life, there is another shock awaiting her when social services take Chiara away from her family to keep her safe from Mafia influence.
For a non-professional actress, Swamy Rotolo delivers a confident, searing, unaffected performance as Chiara, showing incredible poise in her stoicism, depth to her emotions and a rare ability to leave so much unspoken yet convey so much. It is hard to pick one scene for special attention, but any viewers will find her reactions relatable and possibly mirroring their own at that age, despite the lines of whether she is right or wrong being blurred.
Via Carpignano’s direction and Rotolo’s stunning acting, we get a good look into Chiara’s mind, but her personality will prove divisive – she is obnoxious and maybe should stay out of it when told to, but at the same time, it’s a position we’ve been in at one point in our lives, and it is truly frustrating to feel left out of the loop when we reach an age where adulthood beckons. The question we never ask is are they underestimating us or patronising us? Is it for own good or a case of the less who know, the better?
Answers for Chiara comes in the final act and the film ends where we began in a unique swerve that poses further questions about her character. Knowledge is power, so we are told, and Chiara felt powerless without it; now she has it, was it worth it and were the right decisions made based on it? Carpignano leaves us on a positive note with a caveat gravid with sadness, leaving us to ponder how we would handle the same situation.
Had the first 30 minutes not been so indulgently quotidian, A Chiara would have been an easier film to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, it is well shot throughout, and the atmosphere of that party sequence is palpable genuine, be what Carpignano was trying to establish here could have been achieved in less time and more directly. Once we get past this, a sobering, thoughtful, and skilfully drawn story of a search for teenage identity awaits.