Pio Amato (as himself) is a fourteen-year-old boy in Calabria, a region of Italy, and belongs to the Romany community there, which means he is trapped in a cycle of crime, lack of education, and prejudice from the other Italians who are not part of their circle. He lives with his fifteen-strong family in a crumbling apartment block, and like every one of the kids in the community has been forced to grow up too fast: they all smoke cigarettes and drink, for example. But is Pio less grown up than he would like to believe? Is he able to hold onto his childhood for a little while more, or will it be wrenched away from him by circumstances beyond his control?
Director Jonas Carpignano had made it his stock in trade to make movies with non-professional casts, not documentaries following them around their day to day lives, more fictional representations of truthful situations his subjects could be trusted to experience in their position in that particular society and indeed, the lower strata that they held. For A Ciambra, he had a prestigious producer on board as Martin Scorsese had expressed an interest to work with him, and was here to guide something that was recognisably in the much-respected Italian neo-realist style of film that reached back to the immediate post-war years.
The combination succeeded in that the film was very well-received in festivals across the world and was Italy's submission to the Oscars in its year, though it wasn't picked for the shortlist, yet one wondered not merely how well it would travel, but how well it even went down in its native land. No matter how well-meaning it may be to depict the Romanies as fully-rounded characters, individuals, really, deserving of respect on their own terms, the fact remained the plot (or plots, to be clearer) showed them as a people for whom crime was endemic in their lifestyle, and they made no moves to eradicate it, they simply accepted this was their lot in life.
So if you wanted a redemptive tale where the kid found a way out of the morass of lawbreaking and corruption at the end, that's not what was on offer in A Ciambra. It was, if you were being generous, lucid in its portrayal of the Romanies, saying this was what they were like as they thieved their way through the years, yet you may have trouble reconciling how movie narratives normally went with the more realistic stylings here. It was by no means a relentless parade of misery, thankfully, as we were offered lighter moments where Pio laughed and enjoyed himself and made others happy in the process, so you could regard this as well-rounded to that extent, but the scenes where he was forced to participate in the crimes this makes no secret of the fact will be how the rest of his life will play out were sobering.
You might think it was depressing to watch a "pure", childlike soul be corrupted, but there were no indications any of the kids we saw were ever that innocent, with even the toddlers knocking back booze and puffing on coffin nails. Carpignano told it like it was, as he saw it, and given there is a load of prejudice against travellers and those communities, you could legitimately observe he may have been doing more harm than good, since after watching this, and assuming you wanted to get to know about these folks better, you would probably want to stay as far away from them as possible since nothing we witnessed made any moves to convincing us the prejudices were especially erroneous. Nevertheless, we did take this in as a portrait of real people, with good points and bad points, and you did feel sympathy for Pio and his circumstances as he was probably destined to be in and out of jail the rest of his years. Somewhat chaotic in its approach, with too many close-ups to give us our bearings too much of the time, A Ciambra contained honesty that impressed for all those flaws. Music by Dan Romer.
[The Ciambra is released on DVD by Peccadillo Pictures, and has a previous short by this director and the trailer as extras.]