Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Ciambra (Stayback, RT Features, RAI Cinema, Piccadilly Pictures, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was A Ciambra (“Ciambra” is the name of a small town in southern Italy inhabited mostly by Roma people, better known as Gypsies, and “A” is simply the Italian for “the”), a San Diego Italian Film Festival entry shown at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and also Italy’s official submission for the 2017 Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award. The movie was followed by a post-film discussion which revealed a fact about it I hadn’t realized and which profoundly affected my reading of the film: the actors playing the extended family of the film’s central character, 15-year-old Pio (Pio Amato), are in fact his real family: a grandfather who dies during the story, his parents and his six older siblings, some of whom have started having kids of their own. There had been a brief mention in the introduction by several Italian Film Festival officials that the film was “semi-documentary” in character, but I hadn’t realized what that meant until I saw the closing credits and a whole bunch of people with the last name “Amato” were credited with the leading roles. The film has been hailed as ground-breaking in its treatment of Roma people and an attempt to break through the stereotypes surrounding them, but there’s one negative stereotype of the Roma this film totally reinforces: “They’re all crooks.” 

It seems the entire Amato family survives on the income from whatever they can steal and sell on the open market, or collect ransom from the rightful owners (according to an “Trivia” poster, the writer-director, Jonas Carpignano, first met the Amatos when Roma people stole a Fiat full of camera equipment from the location of one of his previous productions and he had to pay ransom to get it back), and one wonders whether any of the Roma actually have jobs and attempt to make honest, legal livings. The film was billed as a coming-of-age story for Pio, and also a story of family obligations given that Pio’s older brother Cosimo gets him started and shows him the criminal ropes until he is arrested and sent to prison (in a marvelously ironic scene, when he gets out — he’s given compassionate release to attend his grandfather’s funeral — he tells Pio that the Roma people are treated with respect in prison, unlike the Blacks), whereupon Pio hooks up with a community of African immigrants who are also involved in crime. They’re from various African countries but the one who particularly befriends Pio is Ayiva (Koudous Seibon), who’s from Burkina Faso and seems to be the only person in the movie who genuinely likes Pio and wants to help him. Alas, at the end of the film, once Cosimo gets out, he plans to loot Ayiva’s storeroom of stolen goods and he wants Pio to help him, and Pio has a moral dilemma — stand with my brother or stand with my friend? Of course I was hoping he would tell his brother to go fuck himself and stand with his friend, but the opposite happens and Cosimo tells Pio that by sticking up for his biological family (and for the Roma people in general against an even more oppressed minority of immigrants), he has finally “become a man.” Cosima initiates Pio into manhood by buying him a blow job from a prostitute (when this scene arrived I noted how Federico Fellini seems to have set a permanent template for the depiction of prostitutes in Italian movies), and the film comes to a grim ending. 

One of the odd aspects of A Ciambra is that ethnic Italians are hardly seen: they come in as authority figures (two carabinieri come to the Amato residence looking for copper they’ve stolen from a construction site — a strange sort of crime because it would seem to be hard for crooks to dispose of this stuff and get money for it, though it happens often enough they must have ways to “fence” construction supplies), priests (at least one priest, who officiates at grandfather’s funeral), and one odd character whose connection to the story is pretty ambiguous. He owns a large house in town and Pio works out a plan to steal the security code for his property by pretending to have lost his soccer ball on the premises — “I kicked it over,” he tells the man — and then let himself in and steal whatever he can grab. Only he’s caught, and the owner seems to have some sort of connection with the Amato family because he knows exactly who Pio is and regards his crime as a personal betrayal — so much so that he says he’s going to charge them for everything Pio stole. Shortly after that mysterious assailants burn down the Amatos’ house and the impression I got — and some of the other audience members did, too — was that the homeowner had organized this arson attack as payback. While I was watching A Ciambra I didn’t like it — I had a hard time staying awake through all those scenes of family dysfunction and I found myself invidiously comparing the film to the Brazilian production City of God, a far better depiction of teenage boys living a life of crime because they’re so beaten down by poverty and racial and social oppression they don’t see any alternative — though the post-film discussion made me feel a bit better about it.