Review: In ‘A Ciambra,’ a Young Roma Boy Comes of Age

Posted January 18, 2018 5:16 p.m. EST

Sometimes at night, Pio (Pio Amato), a 14-year-old Roma boy living on the rough edge of the southern Italian town of Gioia Tauro, sees the specter of his grandfather’s horse wandering the streets. It goes without saying that Gioia Tauro, a beaten-down zone of poverty and petty crime, is no place for such a noble animal. “When we were on the road, we were free,” says Pio’s grandfather — glimpsed as a young man in a brief opening scene — who watches his descendants struggle to hold onto the old ways of their wandering, proudly ungovernable kind.

“A Ciambra,” the second feature directed by Jonas Carpignano (the first was “Mediterranea,” also set in Gioia Tauro), follows Pio’s lurching movement toward manhood and observes his environment with a sympathetic, probing eye. The film, named for the battered apartment complex where Pio lives, provides fresh evidence of the continued vitality of the neorealist impulse as it tries to embed a fictional narrative in the actual world. It has the shape of a fable and the texture of a documentary. The actors are nonprofessionals playing versions of themselves. During the end credits, the frame is filled with more than a few dozen Amatos, Pio’s onscreen (and Amato’s real-world) family.

Kinship is the defining — and also the confining — fact of Pio’s life. Home is a hive of siblings and cousins, presided over by Pio’s mother, daughter of the semi-mythic grandpa. Pio trails after his older brother, Cosimo (Damiano Amato), playing the familiar role of sidekick, mascot and occasional annoyance. The younger boy is a natural watcher, a close student of the ways of his elders, eager to emulate them even when he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on.

After Cosimo is arrested, Pio tries to fill his shoes and apply the lessons he has absorbed. He steals luggage, ransoms stolen cars to their owners and contemplates bigger scores. He is cunning, although not always smart, and like many adolescents he vacillates between wild overconfidence and childlike naïveté. He knows how to drive a car but not how to read. He goes wherever he pleases but is afraid of elevators and trains. He is rarely without a cigarette, a habit that apparently begins among boys in his family shortly after they’re out of diapers. Amato’s brooding man-child features and skinny frame give physical expression to Pio’s in-between, half-formed state.

The story, which emerges slowly through the warmth and noise of Pio’s daily life, leads him toward a wrenching moment of moral crisis. In its mood and methods, “A Ciambra” pays homage to the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the living masters of European realist cinema. Like the protagonists in their films, Pio faces an ethical dilemma created as much by his own misjudgments as by the harshness of his circumstances. He is forced to decide, before he is ready and at enormous potential cost, what kind of person he wants to be.

I hesitate to say too much more, since like the Dardennes (and like their great precursor, Robert Bresson), Carpignano uses the character’s agonizing choice as a way to create suspense. “A Ciambra,” which numbers Martin Scorsese among its executive producers, shows some of his influence as well, in its depiction of crime as a family business and in its attention to masculine codes of loyalty, violence and respect. The most frequent visitors to Ciambra are the police and the gangsters known locally as “the Italians,” who come to dispense assignments and collect payment. It seems inevitable that Pio will end up in trouble with one or the other.

His best friend outside the family is Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an immigrant from Burkina Faso who serves as a surrogate big brother while Cosimo is locked up, and who is nicer to Pio in any case. He is also the boy’s guide — and the viewer’s — to a world of refugees and migrants that is both similar to that of the Roma and distinct from it. Both groups exist at the margins of Italian society, despised, pitied and ignored, but they experience that marginality, and their own uprootedness, in ways that reflect radically different histories.

To put the film’s central problem in political terms, Pio is forced to choose between solidarity and identity, between friendship and blood, between universalism and tribalism. His grandfather’s horse may represent a dream of freedom, but freedom is not a word with a single, fixed meaning. Carpignano has a shrewd sense not only of the character’s psychology but also of the audience’s expectations, and our tendency to confuse realism with magical thinking.


‘A Ciambra’

Not rated. In Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.