From its opening moments – well, after an opening prologue about a man who takes a fancy to a horse – Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra (The Ciambra) immerses you in the crowded hand-to-mouth, can’t-wait-to-grow-up existence of fourteen year old Pio (Pio Amato). In awe of his older brother, Pio lives with his siblings and cousins in a squat in the Gioia Tauro neighbourhood of Calabria, Italy. He doesn’t go to school or watch TV and can’t read text messages. Instead, he like the young children around him smokes – nicotine is easier to come by than chocolate. The family steals electricity and Pio’s brother and his friends steal cars and then return them to their owners for a fee. When Pio’s brother gets arrested, partly caused by Pio’s determination to tag along, Pio tries to step up. However, his behaviour has dire consequences.
The man with the horse is Pio’s grandfather, a gypsy who sired a dynasty and watches quietly as Pio potters around in a garage, carrying car doors. There are no stories; Carpignano has an anti-romantic sensibility. When one meal is served, the family brags they are eating like Italians. Not only is romance absent, but also lamentation. Pio’s mother isn’t wishing for a better life; she is too much of a realist for that.
Pio is redeemed to some extent by his loyalty to his friend, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an immigrant from Burkina Faso, who helps fence the luxury items that Pio steals from unsuspecting passengers; trains are for stealing suitcases, not for travelling. At one point, Ayiva helps Pio make seventy euro, but then wants twenty to give him a lift back to the neighbourhood. He rides up and down the street, tempting Pio. ‘Come on, your train is about to leave.’ Pio doesn’t have a choice but he’s also glad not to be left behind.
If you spend long enough with even an unsympathetic character, you feel something for him. Pio’s saving grace is his naivety. He comes up with the terrible idea of robbing some Italian gangsters. Even though the family sticks together regardless of misfortunes, by the end we regard this as a form of tragedy. Ayiva’s friends, who live in a refugee camp and chant Pio’s name when he brings them a television, are warmer than Pio’s own people.
With considerable understatement, Carpignano shows how Italy has no more solved the African migrant problem than it has successfully addressed the Romany one; there is a quiet equivalence. Although focusing on crime, there is little violence, though a scene in which Pio’s brother decides to give young Pio a treat has earned a caution in the censor classification. (Rated ‘15’ for, etc – the classification board is more of a spoiler than any movie review.)
Boasting the patronage of Martin Scorsese (as executive producer), The Ciambra is a film in the tradition of Salaam Bombay and, to a lesser extent, Pixote. Yet for all its neo realism, Pio keeps seeing the man with a horse, a metaphor for his acquisitive impulses. The final scene of this compelling film offers a scene of heartbreak, when a character makes a choice and is lost forever.
A Ciambra is out June 15