Chiara is 15, the middle daughter in what seems — to her and to us, at least at first — like an ordinary middle-class family.
She goes to school and to the gym, watches television and gets into pillow fights with her sisters, Giulia (Grecia Rotolo), who is turning 18, and Giorgia (Giorgia Rotolo), who seems to be around 8 or 9. With her friends , Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) hangs out in their designated spot along the sea wall in their southern Italian hometown, vaping, scrolling through Instagram and chasing off other girls who dare to encroach on her territory.
But at Giulia’s birthday party — a bustling, multigenerational blowout in a local restaurant, with toasts from uncles and cousins and platters of prosciutto — things start to change. Or maybe what changes is how Chiara sees things. “A Chiara,” Jonas Carpignano’s bristling and observant film, is closely tethered to her point of view. We know only as much as she does, and her risky insistence on knowing the truth is what drives the story through harrowing suspense and potential heartbreak.
At the party, Chiara notices the quiet, tense conversations her father, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo), has with other men. Her quiet suspicions — captured in darting camera movements and staccato editing — are amplified by a series of dramatic events. Claudio disappears into the night. The carabinieri pay a visit. One of the family’s cars bursts into flames on the street in front of their house. And Chiara discovers a hidden opening in the living room wall that leads to an underground bunker.
All of this engenders an especially intense adolescent identity crisis. Claudio is part of the ‘Ndrangheta, the ruthless Calabrian analog of the Sicilian Mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra. He’s not a boss, he explains later, but he’s a hard worker and what wiseguys in American mob movies might call a good earner, involved in the international drug trade. He’s notorious enough to be mentioned in news broadcasts. At one point, Chiara is surprised to hear father referred to by an underworld alias, evidence of an identity that has been kept secret from her.
The adult women in the family — Giulia and the girls’ mother, Carmela (Carmela Fumo) — opt for silence and strategic ignorance. The less they know, the less they say, the safer they will be. Chiara rebels against that arrangement, for reasons she might not entirely understand. She sets out to find her father, pesters her older cousin Antonio (Antonio Rotolo Uno), who works with Claudio, for information, and acts out in other ways that trouble the established order in her household and beyond it.
She’s a complicated character in a complicated situation, and “A Chiara,” while telling her story in a powerful, direct, compact manner — most of the action unfolds in just a few days and nights — does justice to that complexity. In this, it resembles Carpignano’s previous features, “Mediterranea” and “A Ciambra,” which are also set in the Gioia Tauro, a rough coastal town on the edge of Reggio Calabria, the regional capital. Like those films, this one has been cast with local, nonprofessional actors. The people who play Chiara, her siblings, their parents and other relatives are members of an actual family, like the extended Roma clan at the center of “A Ciambra.”
This technique has a long history in cinema, from Robert Bresson and the Italian neorealists to the Dardenne Brothers and Abbas Kiarostami more recently. Often the use of untrained performers lends an aura of documentary credibility to fictional stories, as well as an enigmatic element of opacity. Real people know how to behave, but not necessarily how to act. Carpignano, though, seems to have an ability to identify and cultivate natural actors. Swamy Rotolo, in particular, conveys the quicksilver movements of Chiara’s thoughts and moods with the kind of subtlety and specificity that seasoned methodizers might envy.
In the neorealist tradition, “A Chiara” is a slice-of-life drama built around an idea and animated by a profound moral quandary. Chiara loves her family, but her drive to understand its true circumstances might cause her to lose it. She is caught between the sticky, sometimes lethal ties of blood and the impersonal, rational benevolence of the state. A social worker explains to her that women who defy the codes of the ‘Ndrangheta are sometimes killed and offers the possibility of escape.
Would that be freedom, or a devastating loss? A similar choice confronted Pio, the young Roma protagonist of “A Ciambra.” Carpignano, infinitely sympathetic to these young people and studiously unsentimental about their prospects, doesn’t put a thumb on the scales. You feel the weight of Chiara’s dilemma, the cost of the knowledge she demands, and the heroism of her willingness to pay it.
Rated R. The life of crime. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. In theaters.