Chiara kävelee hämärässä.


Screenwriter and director Jonas Carpignano’s drama, A Chiara (2021), is the third in a trilogy set in the Southern Italian region of Calabria. The first two parts were released in 2015 and 2017. For the second of the trilogy, A Ciambra, Carpignano received the David di Dontatello Award for Best Director from the Academy of Italian Cinema in 2018. The film was also the Italian entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film A Chiara received the Europa Cinema Label prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021.

The legacy of neorealism: from Rossellini to Carpignano

Carpignano’s trilogy shows the director’s unprecedented courage to dig into the fringes of Italian society and the destiny of people living there. In the trilogy’s first film Mediterranea, Carpignano depicts African migrants and the hateful attitude locals hold towards them. In the second film of the trilogy, A Ciambra, the main characters are Romani brothers, one of whom disappears.  A Chiara tells the story of a family from Southern Italy whose lives get turned upside down when the family’s teenage daughter, Chiara, finds out about her father’s mafia connections. Carpignano’s straight talk about contemporary Italian social problems touches upon immigration, minorities, and organized crime, inevitably bringing to mind Italian cinema from the turn of the 1940s and 1950s and the birth of neorealism. Film was viewed then first and foremost as a tool to expose societal issues. Carpignano falls back on the same documentary narrative techniques seen masterfully used by the renowned Italian directors in their neorealist films after the Second World War, and he believes in their narrative power. Directors like Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica swore by neorealism to make fictional films using documentary techniques that showed the real, untouched face of post-war Italy. Rossellini became the leading figure of neorealist cinema, bringing the camera to the street and relying on the raw authenticity of amateur actors to portray realism. In the film A Chiara, Carpignano ingeniously brings forward Rossellini’s idea of using amateur actors in a fictional narrative. Incidentally, film director Martin Scorsese, who himself was deeply inspired by Rossellini’s neorealist films, produced the second of Carpignano’s trilogy.

Carpignano’s mafia doesn’t manifest in the streets. He leads the viewer through nondescript alleys and beaches to end up in a local house, the heart of a local family.

From streets to the home

With the same passion and daring as those who revitalized Italian cinema decades before, Carpignano brought his camera to real shooting locations to capture the stories of survival from society’s discriminated minorities in an authentic and touching way. Carpignano seems to subscribe to Rossellini’s belief that film is “the artistic form of the truth.” [1]  Carpignano’s films get us to see and hear what lies beneath the idyllic surface of contemporary Italy. A Chiara was filmed in Gioia Tauro, Calabria, which is known as the capital of Calabria’s mafia and where Carpignano himself moved in 2010. In A Chiara, Gioia Tauro isn’t filmed as a wildly violent city. In the style of a neorealist director, the film is untouched and makes use of natural light to show the city’s labyrinthine alleys and seashore just as they are. Carpignano’s mafia doesn’t manifest in the streets. He leads the viewer through nondescript alleys and beaches to end up in a local house, the heart of a local family. Where neorealists found ingredients for realistic drama in war torn streets, Carpignano’s drama takes place in a Southern Italian home. Above all, he wants to depict a family from Calabria and the story of a teenage girl. Real filming locations and a realistic portrayal of Gioia Tauro underscore the importance of using amateur actors to achieve authenticity.

Amateur actors and home video as a facilitator for spontaneity

To be able to tell the story of a family in Calabria as honestly as possible, Carpignano brings the use of amateur actors to a new level. A Chiara’s lead actors—Swamy Rotolo (daughter Chiara), Claudio Rotolo (father Claudio) and Grecia Rotolo (daughter Giulia)—are actually family in real life, nor do any of them have acting experience. Carpignano met the lead actor playing Chiara, Swamy Rotolo, in 2015 while filming the second film in his trilogy, A Ciambra, and selected her for a small role. Carpignano was neighbors with the Rotolo family in Gioia Tauro and had gotten to know them over the years. While writing the script for A Chiara, Carpignano knew he wanted this specific teenager for the leading role and wrote the part with Swamy Rotolo in mind. A Chiara begins at older sister Giulia’s 18th birthday party. The dynamically moving camera brings the viewer literally into the middle of a Southern Italian family’s community. The camera weaving around the guests brilliantly captures the close-knit community that’s both physical and psychological in Southern Italy; people live close to each other and community is very significant. Carpignano’s film uses deliberately home video-style camerawork. The camera captures the intimacy of the birthday party as well as Chiara’s internal family dynamics in their home, which supports the emotional authenticity of the amateur actors. The camera moves spontaneously, shaking and swaying; likewise, the family members’ communication is uncontrolled and unfiltered, the elements of which only a life lived together as a family would be able to create.

Chiaran perhe.

At the heart of the intimate portrayal of the family’s day-to-day is the revelation of father Claudio’s mafia connections, which touches viewers in an unusually moving way. His hidden connection to the mafia is uncovered in the film only after viewers have grown close to the family members and have literally gotten under their skin. The secret crushes the shared joy of everyday love. Teenage daughter Chiara emerges as the lead of director Carpignano’s depiction of a family. A large part of the scenes in the film build around dialogue between Chiara and her father, as well as Chiara’s older sister. Carpignano is interested in capturing how father Claudio’s illegal business affects Chiara and her coming of age, and how Chiara’s own moral values can and do manage to develop when her father’s big secret is revealed. The film directs its focused and intimate gaze on Chiara’s clashes with her father. Swamy and Claudio Rotolo’s chemistry creates the same effect as two seasoned professional actors, whose reactions to each other are practiced listening to one another and unwavering presence in the moment. Although part of the masterful father daughter acting is rooted in the intimacy of a life lived together, Carpignano’s direction of Swamy Rotolo also draws out her real potential as an actor. Rotolo’s strong presence throughout the film, attention to acting partners, power to listen and react on impulse in the moment. are all the building blocks of a professional performance. For example, Rotolo’s strong acting can be seen in a scene where sister Giulia, newly licensed, drives Chiara to the beach. At the beach, Chiara pushes Giulia to tell her what she knows about their father’s mafia connections. Chiara’s will is palpable in the scene. The dim evening and dark setting helps the viewer pay attention to the sister’s face and their total attention to one another. To squeeze the truth out of Giulia, Chiara steps closer and closer to her sister, increasing the tension with her verbal onslaught. If Giulia won’t tell the truth, Chiara threatens to slap her. When Giulia calls Chiara a spoiled brat, Chiara tells her to leave. The scene is testament to Swamy Rotolo’s incredible skill in using her real emotions to dramatic effect; it’s safe to assume that these real life sisters have experienced similar arguments in their lives. In this scene, Swamy Rotolo gives herself over entirely to the role. The scene is reminiscent of the American acting teacher Sanford Meisner’s eponymous technique based on the Stanislavski method, specifically the use of the actor’s own impulses and reactions to the provocations of their scene partners. Swamy Rotlo is one hundred percent present in the scene, which makes possible real emotion in a fictional drama. Swamy Rotolo received the David di Dontatello Award for Best Actress, making her the youngest ever recipient of the award at the age of 17. The Italian press has noted Rotolo’s masterful and promising performance, and she’s expected to become a new star.

The speakers are like actors on a theater stage; they’re playing specific roles and performing their specific parts, in this case, providing ceremonial speeches.

The battle between speech and silence

In A Chiara Carpignano studies spoken and silent dialogue in the actors’ performances as well as on a thematic level. The film begins with a closeup of Swamy Rotolo’s face and there are repeated shots of her silent face, which also shows her deeply emotional state. Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs [2]  would consider these shots as a “silent soliloquy,” saying more about the character’s emotional state than a thousand words. Rotolo’s subtle facial movements, which Balázs would consider “microphysiognymy” (65), sufficiently convey when she’s sad or anxious, when she’s disappointed or contemptuous. In the film’s final scene, the daughter of Chiara’s adopted family gives a speech at the dinner table of her 18th birthday. Rotolo’s performance in this scene is another incredible example of the actor’s hundred percent focus. Reactions to the words, gestures, and expressions of her acting partner are embodied as the tiniest of changes to Chiara’s face. The camera focuses on Chiara’s face as she sits at the table. Her eyes look up at her adoptive sister as she stands to give the speech. At the beginning, Chiara is seen smiling and laughing, but as the speech goes on, her face grows more and more serious. The increasingly serious expression shows how touched Chiara is, and perhaps even the longing she feels for her real family. Carpignano creates an interesting contrast between the quiet closeups conveying genuine emotion and the theatrical dialogue. From the very beginning of the film, we see and hear what the guests at Giulia’s birthday party are discussing. The speakers are like actors on a theater stage; they’re playing specific roles and performing their specific parts, in this case, providing ceremonial speeches. The end of the performance is followed by applause from the audience. Father Claudio declines to give a speech, thus refusing to play a role in the play. He’s overheard saying there’s no need for words. In the end, he whispers to Giulia that he loves her and tells her how important she is to him. Both of them are moved, their quiet faces speaking to deep emotion that theatrical party talk wouldn’t have been able to convey. Carpignano seems to be examining a very contradictory relationship with a certain theatricality towards life. On one hand, the father of the family Claudio refuses to play the role of a good father by giving a theatrical speech at the party, but shares love with his daughter one-on-one, genuinely. On the other hand, Claudio is seen in the film as a man whose life wavers between his role as a father and mafioso. Keeping silent is also Claudio’s way of keeping secrets. Chiara’s maturity to adulthood is most of all linked to the theatrical reveal of the family’s hidden secret. Chiara wants to take the masks off and to speak plainly. She pressures her father, as well as her mother and sister, to stop the pretense of being a happy family and to admit that everything’s not okay.

The clash between public and private

By centering a drama around a Southern Italian family, Carpignano also brings the camera’s unflinching gaze to the clash between private spaces, like the home, and public spaces. The beginning of the film depicts the symbolic boundary between public and private. When father Claudio’s car is blown up on the street, Chiara is immediately told to return home for her protection. The gate between the home and the street is a concrete boundary between public and private spaces, as well as safety and danger. At first, Chiara watches what’s happening on the street from behind a curtain and in the safety of her home. The explosion on the street shakes the windows of the house. The boundary between public and private is finally broken in a nightmarish way, when Chiara finds a bunker beneath the house. The bunker symbolizes the intrusion of public space and its danger into the private one and its safety, thus breaking the harmony of the family. It’s significant that Carpignano chose a teenage girl for the film’s main role. This choice can be viewed within the context of the collision between public and private spaces as a breach between feminine and masculine spaces. The fact that Chiara does not behave according to feminine private space norms by infiltrating the traditionally masculine mafia world to investigate her father’s business is a significant point in Carpignano’s story. Carpignano doesn’t seem interested in the idea of the family’s son joining the family mafia as he is interested in centering the teenage girl’s perspective by examining the father-daughter relationship. The film forces the viewer most of all to really think about what happens on an emotional level when a teenage girl finds out about her father’s mafia connections, and where the line is between good and bad, love and hate, and who gets to decide where the line is. The film’s ending hints that Chiara has begun to build her own moral values and is already on her way to self discovery and freedom, at least for now.

[1] Huttunen, Matti (2014) Isä ja poika neorealistisesti, Lääketieteellinen Aikakauskirja Duodecim

[2] Bálàzs, Bela (1952) Theory of Film. Character and Growth of a New Art. London: Dennis Dobson


Text: Hanna Maria Laakso

Hanna Maria Laakso has a PhD focusing on film acting research from Concordia University (2007). She wrote her dissertation on Nordic women in acting and has lectured on the topic in the Nordic countries, Italy, Great Britain, and Canada. She has also extended her teaching materials to Koulukino School Cinema Association since 2008 and has given film workshops for children all around Finland. Laakso has taken a dive into Italian cinema since founding ArsMondo Oy in Italy.

Translation: Hanna Hurme