The chain-smoking, beer-swilling protagonist of A Ciambra is a one-man crime wave. When his father and older brother are arrested, Pio takes responsibility for supporting his entire Romani-Italian clan by stealing and hustling. Pio is observant, audacious, and quick-witted, yet has a few weaknesses: He can't read, and is terrified of elevators and trains. Also, he's only 14.
Dynamic and immersive, A Ciambra is the second feature written and directed by Jonas Carpignano, a U.S.-born and -educated Italian filmmaker. As in his Mediterranea, Carpignano fictionalizes life among social outcasts in southern Italy, inspired by the real circumstances of the nonprofessional actors he casts.
Pio is the movie's imagining of the actual Pio Amato, who's surrounded on screen by more than a dozen members of his family (notably his formidable mother, Iolanda). This film is not a sequel to Mediterranea, but is set in the same milieu and features some of the same characters. Pio was in the previous movie, as was Koudous Seihon, who plays Ayiva, an immigrant from Burkina Faso. Ayiva is a better big brother to Pio than the kid's biological one, Cosimo (played by Damiano Amato, the real-life Cosimo's twin).
Pio hangs out with Ayiva and other Africans who live in a tent city, speaking a mixture of Italian, English, and several African languages. But the other Amatos, although belittled themselves as gypsies or "blacks," are contemptuous of these darker-skinned newcomers. The Romani are one rung up the ladder, and maintain a tentative alliance with the people they call "the Italians" (better known to American viewers as the Mafia). Stealing from these specific Italians is unacceptable; when it happens, the affront must be quickly rectified.
The Romani once traveled from town to town with horse-drawn carriages, and several poetic interludes show Pio's grandfather as a young man with a horse — both man and beast ghosts of an earlier, freer existence. These inserts clash with Carpignano's neo-neorealist style, and slow a movie whose plot doesn't really ignite until the final act. But one of them, offered as Pio's dream, is an effective foreshadowing of a poignant sequence inspired by a funeral procession Carpignano saw years before he restaged it.
Ultimately, Pio must choose between family and betraying a friend. The fraught decision, as well as the bristling doggedness of Pio's quest, recall the dilemmas faced by the protagonists of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' dramas. But in Carpignano's tale, clan and ethnic solidarity have a stronger claim than righteousness.
Shot by Tim Curtin in a handheld documentary-like style, A Ciambra devotes much of its running time to local color. Carpignano clearly loves the shabby exurban apartment complex where the Amatos live — and which provides the film's name — and the club where Pio and his friends dance to rock music laced with Arab and Romani flavors. Many of the scenes were shot at night, and rendered in a visual style that's at once gritty and lyrical.
That's the same balance Carpignano achieves in the storytelling, aided by committed performances and Dan Romer's eclectic yet minimalist score. The director doesn't romanticize his half-found, half-invented characters, yet he's clearly inspired by their earthiness and energy. While A Ciambra is not a happy story, its vigor and authenticity deliver a sort of joy.