A Chiara opens with a lavish birthday celebration which unfolds in defined stages. A dinner with toasts leads to a dance contest which ends with some slow dancing. The idea for this extended sequence came from a 18th birthday party that writer-director Jonas Carpignano attended in Gioia Tauro, a municipality in Calabria, Italy. The Italian-American Carpignano has spent years making films in Gioia Tauro, and A Chiara continues his documentary-like observational filmmaking methods which bring an audience deeper into the narrative. A Chiara‘s opening birthday sequence shows this Italian family at its most joyful, but they are soon uprooted by the father’s mafia ties.
“That scene is the perfect example of me absorbing the life in Gioia Tauro and then putting it on the page,” Carpignano tells MovieMaker.
“I was not going to work, I was invited to a party, and I had a great time at that party. And I remember knowing the family at the party better afterwards,” he continues.
So he thought staging a similar party scene was a great opportunity “to get the audience to get to know this family in as observational mode as possible, without too much context, without too much editorializing,” he says. Carpignano even hired the same MCs and DJs from that first party for his filmed party scene.
“I’m just gonna let the audience live with this family the way I lived with that party. And I’m confident that by the end of it, they’ll know this family better,” he continues.
A Chiara completes Carpignano’s Calabria trilogy, which includes 2015’s Mediterranea and 2017’s A Ciambra. In A Chiara, the titular Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is a naïve teenage daughter of a wealthy Calabrian drug runner. A Chiara traces her coming of age as she unearths the truth about her father’s line of work.
Rotolo’s family in the film are played by members of her actual family and this informed the scripting process. “The character ended up having three sisters because I knew Swamy had three sisters,” Carpignano says. “The character had this relationship with their father, because that’s the way Swamy’s relationship with the father was, and so on and so forth. So the initial idea developed and blossomed and was tailored to the actual life of Chiara.”
The key difference is that Rotolo’s father is not in the mafia. That idea came from another family Carpignano knew in the region.
“Someone who I knew was arrested for association with mafia causes. He wasn’t a friend, but I knew him well enough to see the effect that it had on his family, specifically, his daughter, who was seven at the time. I remember this change in her,” Carpignano says.
The treatment for A Chiara was written quickly to apply for European funding, and the age of the daughter in his story had been updated to 14-15. Then Carpignano met Rotolo when casting A Ciambra, which she has a small role in, and immediately knew she was Chiara. “I had no doubts, no questions, no qualms, it was going to be her if I was gonna be able to make the film,” he says.
But European funds take time to come through and so timing was key for it working out with Rotolo.
“Swamy was nine when I met her, and I didn’t know that we’d be able to make the film at the exact time when she actually turned 15 or 16,” Carpignano says.
“My dream was for it to be Swamy, it was written for Swamy,” he continues. “But you never know with these European funds, it could have happened when she was 20, at which point she would have been too old. So, there’s a healthy dose of luck.”
A Chiara, written and directed by Jonas Carpignano, is now in theaters.
Main image: Swamy Rotolo is Chiara in A Chiara