Translation and adaptation by Pina Piccolo of own Italian language article that appeared on Carmilla online
I just got home from viewing A Ciambra: a vision in the ‘visionary’ sense of the word. My ears are still ringing with the chitchat about its humanity, coming from some elderly spectators sitting behind me, and the comments of the young people sitting in my row. The latter, during the break (in Italy movies have intermissions) were wondering where the camera was positioned in some scenes and whether there were two of them filming from different angles. While the older viewers underscored the message that they thought people should draw from the movie, the younger ones wondered how the director was able to technically package a vision that he wanted the public to gain.
I write these notes as a spectator and not as a movie critic, a skill that I clearly cannot call my own. As you may be struck speechless and fall into sensory confusion when you see a Caravaggio, after a day spent seeing countless Renaissance paintings, I had the same sort of experience when I viewed A Ciambra. I must confess that part of that suspension of the senses was due to the transposing and updating of locations that were part of my childhood and adolescence a long time ago. Gioia Tauro, perhaps the city that most boldly transgresses the rules of italian urban aesthetics, San Ferdinando, an outlaying area of Rosarno, the evoked Reggio Calabria, the Tonnara and the high security prison of Palmi are all places that were my habitual landscapes as I was growing up. But the gypsies that I knew were those who would brazenly knock at your door when your mother was gone and tell you that she had sent them to retrieve a bottle of olive oil from you. An order I would carry out promptly and indiscriminately, obedient child that I was at that time, when dealing with any adult figure.
These very same places, situated in the plains of Gioia Tauro, have now risen to the highest status in a sort of dystopia tied to the issue of migration. This is so in a very obvious way with the tent city of San Ferdinando di Rosarno, less bombastically so with the container harbour of Gioia Tauro, the second most important in the Mediterranean, currently one of the mainstays for narco-trafficking in its European leg. I didn’t know anything about the Ciambra neighborhood, but now thanks to Pio, the very young Roma protagonist who plays himself, I discovered the representation of a universe free of paternalism and ideology. It is a representation directed by Jonas Carpignano, an Italian American filmaker. Perhaps what was really needed was a semi-outsider glance to record this point of intersection between the world of the Roma and the world of migration (the “Moroccans” as they are known locally, but in reality mostly black Africans from the Sub-Saharan regions). To add another level of complexity, th intersection includes in a more subterranean, indirect and implicit way the ndrangheta, i.e., the local Mafia.
Pio Amato (a non professional actor and member of the local Roma community) certainly does not match the prerequisites for the Zhdanovian positive hero canon. I believe that if Pio has cinematic/literary ancestors, they would be certain characters from Truffaut or the protagonists of on the road movies. And who is more on the road than the Roma? And here is the irony of it all: a people who used to move around following seasonal agricultural work and providing craft services is now being reduced to living in falling apart low income residential projects like the A Ciambra neighborhood in the outskirts of Gioia Tauro, a peripheral town itself.
This coming of age movie about Pio Amato takes place inside a Roma universe that the outside world of the gagé, i.e., the non Roma people as defined by the Roma themselves, would like to tame and/or use. All of this occurs in a very complex sociological context, in direct contact with the world of the immigrants and the world of ndrangheta. At the technical level, the claustrophobia of the closed in life of the Roma community is accentuated by filming it by positioning the camera at shoulder level, as is done in movies that follow the Dogma group aesthetics (in certain scenes, in fact, what comes to mind is the movie The Celebration). The camera moves in such a way as to place the spectator at the center of the collective life of the Amato family (notice the credits at the end of the movie), both by offering snippets of intimate moments (the lunch scene with everybody getting drunk) and in the interactions with other, external “actors” – in the sociological sense of the word. An example of these types of encounters is the scene in which the threatening/ kindhearted ‘compare’ who represents the ndrangheta meets with the family to demand compensation after the for once clueless Pio robbed him. Other interactions with the outside world other than the usual gagé robbed on the trains include the interactions with the “marocchini” and it is there that we meet Koudous, Pio’s hero and friend (played by actor Koudous Selhon who was also the protagonist of Jonas Carpignano’s previous movie Mediterranea).
It is in outdoor places or semi open ones that Pio and the spectator are finally able to breathe. Suffice it to think of the scenes when the boy who’s been exiled by his own community for his faux pas with the ndrangheta observes his family with a certain detachment, sitting at the top of the little hill just above the falling down housing; or the semi open scene in the tent city of San Ferdinando, where the boy is acclaimed and carried over the shoulders in triumph by the local black agricultural workers, his name rhythmically called out as he’s praised as the heroic author of the robbery/transportation which enables the African community to view the soccer game on TV.
What is obvious is that the Roma are extraneous to the various important mechanisms that govern the 21st century, both as far as the world of writing and that of money are concerned. In spite of the fact that their very survival depends on petty theft and what they earn from it. For example, Pio uses the smartphone with great ease but being illiterate is not able to read or send texts (so he asks his sister to do it). The Roma matriarch speaks of a nine thousand euro electricity bill that they cannot or do not want to pay and that number does not sound especially huge (it could be the same as a eight-hundred euro bill for a gagé housewife). The same will happen for the six or seven thousand euros demanded as reimbursement for damage incurred by the ndrangheta due to the theft of a tablet perpetrated by Pio. This liberality with the zeros and a certain innocence with respect to to some basic mechanisms of the contemporary, is matched, on the other hand, by a high level of skill in coming up with ways to blackmail people, which are manifested in the ‘compare gagé ‘and in Pio’s older brother alike.
The opening and closing scenes of the movie perhaps offer a key to understand Pio’s life and that of his community, his specific coming of age novel, which in the best literature is never deprived of shadows.
Opening scene: wide shot, a free horse roaming in the Aspromonte mountain range, a man (you’ll later understand that it’s Pio’s grandfather as a young man) gets close to it and strokes it, on what could be its mane or its tattered halter (the symbol of a freedom that perhaps in the case of both horse and Roma community is about to end). The grandfather is an essential figure in the movie, he becomes a sibyl-like figure that is difficult to understand, and is not clear whether it is because he has suffered a stroke or because he uses an archaic language. The family, however, is eager to take on the task to decode his messages, which seem to date back to a distant era. In one occasion (dream? reality?) the grandfather’s speech become really clear: grandfather and grandson are in the barn and grandpa points to a broken down cart and tells Pio that he was born on it at a time when the Roma were free, but now it’s them against the world, and all they can rely on to survive is their own community. Later on, this episode and these messages appear again in an oneiric and then sociological level connected to the issue of betrayal.
To cross a geographical space a means of locomotion is needed and for Pio the means of locomotion par excellence is no longer the horse (which at one time offered the possibility of physical closeness between man and animals) but rather the scooter, which affords him the opportunity to escape from the claustrophobia of his community and the ability to establish a potential physical contact, which he strongly desires. He is in fact disdainful both of cars and trains, which are too closely associated with his line of work of stealing suitcases and as bumbling car thief. Pio seeks out the physical proximity, cheerfulness and vitality of his gagé friend from the migrant community in his search for a male adult figure that might be different from the males of his own community (who tend to be rather lugubrious). The physicality of his relationship with the women of his family, and his grandmother particularly, belongs to his childhood universe and Pio is conflicted between the comfort that they offer and the desire to free himself from their authority. He feels a need to draw away from them as he is transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
Such transition takes place by abandoning the desire/dream of another life through an act of ‘betrayal’ and the acceptance of exclusive loyalty to his own community. Both this renunciation and acceptance cause him to be very conflicted and that the audience senses that they are the result of blackmail. Here the expressivity of Pio’s face is essential and the director makes use of it with great skill in all its range, including a kind of innocent wonderment and bewilderment, which debunks his hallmark cunning. For example one scene that unleashes a certain suspense is the visit to the bordello, organized by his big brother as a prize to signal his official entry into the world of adulthood and mature masculinity. The acceptance of a new relationship with the feminine element, in an environment with which he had a certain familiarity (he was a friend of many of the prostitutes, but not a ‘client’) now requires a different performance on his part. Cinematically, the scene at the bordello is very rich at the communicative level in expressing his unease and sense of loss. The director is able to contextualize it to 2017, in the era of the ever available YouPorn, while distancing the portrayal of the experience from the cliché, grotesque modes of representation selected for this type of scene in other movies (suffice it to think of Amarcord).
Intermittently the horse reappears, but in the last scene Pio finds himself at a fork in the road; on one side he’s being called by the world of children and on the other (finally and when it’s in their interest), the world of male adults from his community is beckoning. We see him hesitate for one moment and then stride with utter confidence towards the adults. But having seen his independent spirit manifested in the past, the audience is left with the sensation that his destiny is not completely sealed. He could still move towards different directions, and his very acceptance to participate in this movie testifies to the possibility he might take other roads. He could reappear once again with his scooter hanging on to Koudous, an iconic image to represent the early decade of the twentyfirst century, just like Nanni Moretti riding his scooter in the streets of Rome in Caro Diario was the iconic image for Italian cinema and society of the 90s of the twentieth century.
Pina Piccolo, raised in Italy and the USA, presently living in Italy, has a Ph.D. in Italian literature from University of California, Berkeley. A poet, teacher, translator, she is the principal coordinator and one of the originators of La macchina sognante, the literature and culture online journal that spinned off the English language version Taking a transnational approach, the Dreaming Machine and Piccolo’s focus is the circulation of writings, ideas and cultural projects, with special attention to issues of migration, racism, history, and indigenous cultures, as well as the encouragement of new literary voices.
Featured image: photo by Melina Piccolo.