Us Against the World: Jonas Carpignano’s Calabrian Trilogy

The Italian director subversively opens up a space where his young drifters, neither faceless nor voiceless, can think of themselves anew.
Leonardo Goi
Jonas Carpignano's A Chiara is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries starting August 26, 2022, in the series The New Auteurs and Jonas Carpignano: The Calabrian Trilogy.
A Chiara (2021).
Her sister’s birthday party is still in full swing when fifteen-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) sees her dad leave the celebrations, rush to his car, and drive away. There have been other times in Jonas Carpignano’s A Chiara when the teen’s father seemed to know more than he let on, but this is the first he radiates a sinister energy, something Chiara has never sensed before and doesn’t know how to decipher. Stunned, she looks on. The whole scene lasts a handful of seconds, most of which Carpignano spends on the girl’s face as she takes it all in: her dad sneaking out of the restaurant where the whole family’s dancing, his last words to her, drowned in a low hum, the worried look as he disappears into the vehicle. Later that night Chiara will wake up to find him back at home and will watch him vanish again, climbing over the roof; that same week, a newsreel will tell her that her father was a prominent figure in the ’Ndrangheta underworld, and is now on the lam.
Each revelation is followed by a close-up, and each close-up marks a pause, not a full stop but a colon, as if the camera was holding its breath, scanning Chiara’s face. Carpignano’s films teem with similar moments. Call them epiphanies: the world reveals itself to his young drifters in ways both unexpected and troubling, rejigging their bearings and shattering the microcosms they’re marooned in. As it was for Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), the Burkinabe migrant at the center of Carpignano’s feature debut Mediterranea (2015), or Pio (Pio Amato), the Romani teen at the heart of A Ciambra (2017), Chiara’s is the story of an awakening. And if there’s a through line in Carpignano’s Calabrian trilogy—save for the films’ geographical proximity, all three shot between Gioia Tauro and the neighboring town of Rosarno—this might be it. Markedly different in backgrounds and experiences, Carpignano’s characters all share a similar sense of confinement, stranded in a milieu that seems to have already decided what they should and shouldn’t ask, know, and see.
Looking, then, takes on a subversive power. People look plenty in Carpignano’s films, and the glances they dart—furtive, curious, forbidden—stand as world-unlocking ruptures that shatter whatever fantasy they may have conjured for themselves, opening their eyes (literally and figuratively) to the much larger and intricate web of power relations in which they’re implicated. Early into Mediterranea—and a few hours after reaching Rosarno—Ayiva is walking with other migrants in the dead of night, when a car races threateningly close to them, barely a few inches from their petrified bodies. Carpignano favors handheld camerawork, a choice that both suits and amplifies his protagonists’ restlessness. But Ayiva stands still, staring at the car as it bolts away, while cinematographer Wyatt Garfield holds the camera on his face, bearing witness to the ways the event shakes him, sealing his gaze and metastasizing into the face he’ll wear throughout the film—a mix of anger, resilience, fear, defiance, and exhaustion. “You don’t look okay,” his sister will tell him over the course of a harrowing Skype call; “this is how I always look here,” he mutters.
Mediterranea (2015).
Ayiva shares the journey and Calabrian sojourn with Abas (Alassane Sy), but Mediterranea is his story. Played by Seihon, a Burkinabe Carpignano met in Rosarno and moved in with as the two began working on the script, the young man crosses the sea hoping to save enough to bring his daughter and sister over, but his dreams are thwarted by the threats and humiliations he confronts on the new turf. Shunned by the Italians and left with no money, no papers, and no job prospects save for back-breaking gigs picking oranges in ‘Ndrangheta-controlled orchards, Ayiva careens through Mediterranea as a Sisyphean figure. Only at the end does his anger detonate, in an uprising that sees the migrant community march and set fire to the streets of Rosarno, an echo of the 2010 riots that led to the eviction of nearly two thousand Africans from the city.
Looking propels Ayiva’s awakening and politicization, the same effect it exerts on Pio and Chiara as they wake up to their family histories and their own role within them. But sight is not the only sense Carpignano’s cinema teases. His characters are bodies in motion, and there’s real kinetic energy to their perambulations, an urgency that has them jump and run and hurl into the world at breakneck speed. (It’s no coincidence A Chiara should kick off with its titular heroine jogging on a treadmill and end with her sprinting down a race track, or that the first glimpse we catch of Pio in A Ciambra sees the boy slam himself against his older brother’s bedroom door, over and over, and then race through the house as the sibling flees on a moped.) The revelations Carpignano’s protagonists confront have a corporeal dimension; sight might trigger them, but his films are concerned with uncovering the different ways in which they play out on the body. Which accounts for the haptic quality of his cinema. With their penchant for grainy images (all three films are shot in 16mm and 35mm, the first by Wyatt Garfield, the other two by Tim Curtin), close-to-the-body camera angles in which human flesh swallows the screen whole, and relentless changes in focus that have characters camouflage with and blur into their surroundings, Mediterranea, A Ciambra, and A Chiara turn bodies into their own absorbing worlds. At their most lyrical and sensual, Carpignano’s films have a clasping effect, pulling the audience into their cosmos and narrowing the distance between its denizens and viewers.  
This haptic focus carries a subversive power of its own, inviting us to regard characters as material presences and tangible forces. Music serves a similar function. Needle-drops abound throughout the triptych, a playlist of diegetic and non-diegetic songs that draws from international pop bangers as voraciously as it fishes from local repertoires—Italian and African. Rihanna, Calvin Harris, and Sean Paul are blasted alongside tracks migrants imported from home, and Italian oldies that ricochet from radios and bars. The polyphony doesn’t just serve as decor; songs too, in Carpignano’s cinema, burst with a liberating zing. A minor character in Mediterranea, Pio becomes the epicenter of A Ciambra, a visceral portrait of Gioia Tauro’s Romani community seen through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy who must renegotiate his role within the family once his father and older brother are sent to prison. Among many other things, this is also a heartfelt and ultimately tragic chronicle of Pio’s friendship with Ayiva, who saunters into the film as the teen’s big brother. Halfway through, Pio sneaks into the migrants’ makeshift camp to sell a television. He walks into a tent crammed with Ghanaians watching a football match on a laptop, and glances nervously at the crowd who beckons him forward, handing him a beer and a joint while Sister Nancy’s “BAM BAM” swells the tent into something warm and soothing. By the time Ayiva finds him, Pio has been adopted by the Ghanaians, one of them crooning, “we’re all gypsies here, we’re all the same,” as the beat goes on, and a young Nigerian woman—the same who, while mingling with Ayiva and Abas, had danced to Rihanna’s “S&M” in Mediterranea, carving out in that film one rare moment of solace—flirts and sways with a stupefied Pio.
A Ciambra (2017).
Musical scenes like these open up spaces for cross-cultural communion, which speak to the trilogy’s larger project: to disrupt narratives of marginality. Carpignano’s portrait of Ayiva and Pio yanks both from the abstraction of statistics and the condescension of the humanitarian gaze; boy and migrant are neither faceless nor voiceless. The whole trilogy itself centers on people the world disallows, nurturing tales where characters are not and need not act as pariahs, but can think of themselves anew. The riot Mediterranea climaxes with—an outburst of rage that harkens back to the endings of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Franco Rosso’s Babylon, another astounding study of a man rebelling against his invisibility—turns Ayiva into someone altogether different from the man he was as he first washed up in Calabria. The same goes for Pio, whose journey culminates with his ascent to the grownups world, the universe he’d so ardently wished to belong to and in the film’s last shot almost begrudgingly walks toward, as Carpignano puts him at a literal crossroads: his younger siblings and cousins calling him from one side of the road, his brother and uncles waving from the other. Here too, the camera stays on his face to record one last epiphany, Pio suddenly realizing the full weight of his choices: this is how his childhood ends. It’s a heart-shaking scene, and one of Carpignano’s most indelible. 
Ostracized as they may seem, the trilogy’s protagonists all make choices. Chiara herself, miles away from Pio and Ayiva for the social milieu she occupies, shares with both a kind of entrapment, but gets to rebel and assert her agency. Halfway through A Chiara, the girl is separated from her parents and put on a train that will ship her to the other side of the country as part of a government-backed rehabilitation scheme designed to sever all ties between mafia-tied families and their kids. As he did with Pio’s in A Ciambra, Carpignano casts Swamy Rotolo’s whole family in A Chiara, her father Claudio Rotolo and mother Carmela Fumo filling their real-life roles, a choice that amps up the poignancy of this forced departure. There’s a great deal of irony in the way the authorities sugarcoat what’s essentially an abduction (“our program gives children a choice,” a judge tells girl and mother) when the teen has no say over any of it. But Carpignano does give Chiara a chance to decide for herself. No sooner has she stepped foot on the train that she jumps off and runs back home, in hopes to find her father and uncover the truth behind her family—to see for herself.
There’s a moment in A Ciambra when Pio’s grandfather shares with the boy a piece of wisdom that doubles as a tagline for Carpignano’s entire triptych: “Remember, it’s us against the world.” Pio blinks, unsure what to make of the words, yet they reverberate through the whole film, and echo everywhere across Mediterranea and A Chiara, too. Carpignano is too astute a writer to churn out facile happily-ever-afters; all three films end on an ambivalent note, ambiguous about what the future might hold. But the director is unmistakably enamored with his outcasts, and nowhere does his affection feel more vivid than when the camera turns to their faces. With its focus on ostensibly invisible subjects and non-hegemonic stories, the Calabrian trilogy fills a gap in the traditional narratives of Italian cinema, and these close-ups stand as illustrations of Carpignano’s overarching design. We may never know whether life will be kind to his wanderers. But in these brief, discontinuous moments, here they are, standing at the center of the world, watching as it changes, and changing them as they look.


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