M, 122 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s a birthday party, Italian style, with an 18-year-old basking in all the love and attention as family and friends swirl around her. The vino is flowing freely, delectable dishes keep landing on tables already replete with victuals, and the pulsing music builds a mesmeric intensity to the gathering.

A Chiara isn’t the first film to portray the strength of family ties among the mafiosi. Who can forget the power of the wedding scene in the first of Coppola’s Godfather films? And, anyway, where does the money that bankrolls such an event come from?

The family in A Chiara seem very close-knit, perhaps intensely so, as cinematographer Tim Curtin weaves Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and his three daughters together in a tapestry of fluid close ups. Some of this familiarity comes naturally, as Claudio and the girls are in fact already a family, the Rotolos. The mother, Carmela (Carmela Fumo) is, however, from another local Calabrian family, in the town of Gioia Tauro in the toe of Italy from which the filmmakers drew their cast. As I understand it, all are non-actor community members.

Atmosphere created by  close-up, mobile camera and throbbing score is a heady invitation to join in and feel a part of it

The writer-director Jonas Carpignano and his team have put great emphasis on an atmosphere that builds a sense of family. Family that loves to distraction, and a system of relationships that will never let go. The atmosphere that is created by the close-up, mobile camera and the throbbing score adds up to a heady invitation to the audience to join in and feel a part of it. Welcome to the mafia family networks of Italy’s south.

On the back of A Ciambra in 2017 and Mediterranea in 2015, A Chiara is the third film by Carpignano set in the commune of Gioia Tauro, where there is a major port. The writer-director who hails from New York has now relocated in that part of the world.

It may strike us as strange that in the midst of expressions of joy and warmth at the birthday party, Giulia’s father, Claudio is unable to bring himself to stand up and make a toast to his daughter, Giulia (Grecia Rotolo), the eldest of his three children. Others step in on his behalf, then events the following day offer some sort of explanation.

Soon afterwards, the family car explodes in the street, and Claudio disappears over the back wall without anyone, not even Carmela, offering an explanation. Then Giulia’s sister Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) sees in the news on her cell phone that her father has been identified as an established figure in a drug smuggling ring and become a fugitive.

Determined to know more, Chiara finds a network of secret passages connected to the family home, leading to bunkers where someone could remain hidden for long periods of time. It’s Claudio’s hangout, immediately confirmed by an old mobile phone with his ID. Discovering that her father is affiliated with an international crime syndicate is not something that Chiara can live with, unless she is willing to look the other way.

 What others would call mafia, her father calls survival

This calamitous news can turn her comfortable existence inside out, but she is driven by a need to discover the entire truth. In English, the title of the film can also mean towards the light, towards clarity.

It’s no surprise that she is up for it. We can see that Chiara is bold and strong. Pursuing her sessions at the gym with determination, putting down the teen competition on Instagram, arguing with male relatives who challenge her about her secret smoking. Actually, it’s vaping.

Referencing the two earlier films of the trilogy, Carpignano takes Chiara into a night-time encounter with local Romani teens, from a community peripheral to town, who are tossing firecrackers as she and her sister drive past on their scooter. She stands up to the intimidation just like she eventually stands up to her father. Insisting he can no longer tell her what to do, insisting he tell her the truth about his work, and challenging his view that what others call mafia, he calls survival.

If A Chiara sounds full on, it has its contemplative side too, capturing the actors’ faces in different moods like Renaissance paintings. The nearby town of Urbino earns a special place in this story. Maybe it’s no accident that it was the birthplace of the artist Raphael.

First published by the Canberra Times on 13 May 2022. Jane’s review are also published on Rotten Tomatoes