A spectre is haunting cinema— the spectre of Italian neorealism. Spectral, because despite the critical and cultural ripples made by films like The Florida Project, American Honey, and Valeska Grisebach’s Western, these non-professional actors, semi-real situations and hitherto unexplored settings tend to be forgotten by awards season. The genre, which always eluded precise definition, barely manifests itself in its modern incarnations, anyway; the actual methods and circumstances of Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti et al. are unrepeatable, and filmmakers as smart as Sean Baker and Andrea Arnold know how to synthesise an eclectic mix of styles and moods into something never before seen.
One of the most committed neo-neorealists, if we can call them that, which we shouldn’t and won’t from now on, is Jonas Carpignano. He’s an Italian-American director with historic family ties to the Italian film industry; his Criterion Top 10 picks describe a childhood raised on films made by not just the neorealists, but all their artistic descendants in Italy as well. His latest film, A Ciambra, was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and so well-received in Italy that they submitted it to the Oscars as their candidate for best foreign language film. It’s a sequel, of sorts, bringing a supporting character from his debut Mediterranea into the spotlight: Pio Amato (the name of the character and the actor who plays him), a resourceful, protean Romani boy who divides his time between his family in the Romani community on the edge of town (the eponymous Ciambra) and his unconventional friendship with Ayiva, the Burkinabe immigrant whose arrival in Italy was chronicled in the previous film.
Carpignano is no tourist in these people’s lives. He’s lived in Calabria for eight years while filming first two short films with the same subjects, then their feature-length iterations. He first encountered Pio after venturing to the Ciambra to negotiate the return of his own stolen vehicle. Koudous Seihon, who plays Ayiva in both films, is not just the talented actor he discovered but his sometime roommate. Italian neorealism, which shed light on the fractures in post-war Italian society, depended on a distance between filmmaker and subject. The camera kept rolling where other films would have cut, and looked at people who other films would have ignored, to draw attention to what was being neglected in cinema and in society. The camera’s unconventional behaviour made the audience aware that there was an observer present, making active choices about what to observe. Carpignano is much closer to his subjects than this.
He befriends his actors, and crafts stories that resemble their real lives. He tells these stories from the perspective of their subjects, crafting sequences that attempt to render something of their inner lives. A Ciambra begins with a spectral, dreamlike vision involving Pio’s grandfather and his horse. From there, we see Pio’s yearning for closeness with his family, who have an uneasy arrangement with the local ‘Ndrangheta crime family, and how it connects and conflicts with his friendship, and emerging crime partnership, with Ayiva. Pio is trapped in a number of boxes, and his most frequently voiced ambition is to help his older brother steal cars, despite his elders’ attempts to shelter him. He yearns to escape his family in order to gain greater respect and camaraderie with them, to free himself from one trap and fall into another.
The film is a testament to the trust and friendship between Carpignano and the young Pio, as well as Pio’s family, many of whom play themselves. It’s easy to see why this intrepid director, who grew up between New York and Rome, between his Italian and African American ancestry, identifies with Pio. The boy slips nimbly between the various factions, divided by race and language, who populate the town of Gioia Tauro; but he also forces each faction to confront the other, to deal with the instability of their grudging mutual tolerance. Carpignano’s optimistic celebration of Pio’s insouciant attitude to cultural and social barriers is undercut only by the intractable dominance of the ethnically Italian ‘Ndrangheta, who seek to swiftly re-establish their divisive status quo.
Pio is no angel, but he’s also a victim of his circumstances. He steals cars; one mesmerically noirish sequence sees him steal luggage from a train; in the film’s most morally dicey scene, the 14-year-old appears to receive (off-screen) oral sex from a prostitute— I’m sure that this scene is merely cinematic implication, and nothing untoward happened, but it does highlight the gulf in age of consent laws between Italy and this country. And it is a symptom of a deeper issue: if your film depends on its claims to truthfulness, to its proximity to real lives and situations, how much responsibility does the filmmaker have— not just to represent reality, but to filter it, to protect actors and even entire communities, to re-conjure their struggles without re-visiting them?
The film’s best scenes, consequently, are the gentlest: Pio’s family at dinner, in fits of laughter, with Pio sneaking more wine than his elders approve of; Pio and Ayiva establishing a camaraderie, Ayiva introducing Pio to his friends during a viewing party for a football match. In trying to be faithful to Pio’s story, the kind of crime/coming-of-age hybrid familiar from the work of directors like Scorsese, the sensationalising of Pio’s story is inevitable: the parts of his life that do not fit into this frame, the people who are often neglected in the crime genre, are also given short shrift here. A Ciambra has the same dearth of complex female characters as many of its genre cousins, for one thing, and as the dinner scene proves, it’s not for want of viable candidates.
I don’t want to harp on this too much. Carpignano’s intentions are good, and he’s put so much work into putting interesting people on screen who would not usually get such an opportunity. He’s sensitive to the complexities and the contradictions of Pio and Ayiva’s lives. But the grip of truthfulness, the moral minefield that neorealism puts around the process of filmmaking, gives me pause for thought. Neorealism is artful when it manages to find safe passage through the trap of reality the filmmaker places around themselves. It’s a hard trick to pull off; Sean Baker, in crafting a game for his actors to play in The Florida Project, and filtering reality through the ensuing sense of fun and wonder, managed to create a safe, artistically productive environment for the children of his film; and even he has not been immune to criticism of this kind. One gets the sense that Carpignano didn’t want to, or perhaps was not in a situation where he could, create any barriers or offer any shelter, and it’s worth interrogating his methods.
In an interview attached to the film’s press kit, he describes his process: ‘I also spent a lot of time breaking down barriers between the cast and myself. It was not a “professional” relationship. There was a deep familiarity between us which I think is why they were willing to go places when I asked them to.’ I don’t want to twist his words; the most positive way I can interpret what he means here, is that Carpignano felt he had to establish a deep understanding and trust between himself and his actors in order to tell their stories. But it’s worth questioning the ways that a neorealist approach to filmmaking ignores the kinds of boundaries between director, actor and location that are often healthy, protective and mutually beneficial to making lucid and purposeful art. Sometimes guiding an actor without giving them explicit instructions is a nurturing, attentive, liberating process; the danger is that it becomes a way of avoiding being honest and up-front about artistic intention, a way of diverting attention away from the frame being placed around someone’s situation, the box being put over their heads.