Jonas Carpignano on Heading Into Unknown Territory in “A Chiara”

In 2010, Jonas Carpignano moved to Gioia Tauro, unaware that he was putting down roots in the small Italian town for at least the decade that followed. He had met Koudous Seihan while doing research on a riot that took place in nearby Rosarno, and he knew he found a movie star when hundreds followed him on the street leading a protest, leading a collaboration in which the two would move into a house together to give their full attention to a film. In fact, they would make “Mediterranea” together, based in part on Seihan’s own experiences of migrating from Burkina Faso, and he’d pop up in Carpignano’s  follow-up “A Ciambra,” which moved to a different part of town where the youngest son (Pio Amato) of a mob family is trying to decide for himself how much he wants to be a part of the trade.

One doesn’t need to see either of these films to be immediately pulled into Carpignano’s third “A Chiara,” but if it feels as if you’re slipping into someone else’s life more so than usual when you enter the film, it’s because of how much groundwork the director has laid in Gioia Tauro where locals now clamor to get in front of his camera and stories inevitably become about characters meticulously process their unique set of circumstances as he comes to learn about theirs. After telling the stories of a migrant and a teen resisting the call of the mafia, Carpignano thrillingly takes audiences into the mind of Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), a young woman who comes to question everything in her life after her beloved father Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) disappears, believed by some to have died in a car explosion, though she won’t let go of the hope he’s still alive.

Following the thread of what happened, Chiara finds she’s unraveled an entire web of deceit as she learns of her father’s criminal connections and when there’s a strong sense she has no idea what’s coming next, it’s due in part because Rotolo really didn’t as Carpignano refrains from ever giving his cast a proper script, instead developing their characters with them over an extensive period of time before filming and letting them make discoveries of their own on set. For the director, the surprises lie in finding his actors in the first place, once again locating a captivating screen presence in Rotolo, who brings her entire real-life family along for the drama, and “A Chiara” has a crackling energy to accompany its underlying mystery that would seem to directly stem from the balance of reality and fiction that Carpignano is able to strike after having three of these unique productions under his belt. After premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “A Chiara” is now arriving on American shores and the director spoke about how his own real life bleeds into the pictures he makes, contending with the COVID outbreak during filming and how he’s built each film off how he made the previous one.

These films weren’t conceived as a trilogy, but given the different perspectives they’re centered around, has one film affected who you wanted to follow in the next?

In hindsight, the process of making these films is to give myself over to this town entirely and I know the making these films is a direct result not just of finding a character in a film that I want to put into the next film, but living in a town and finding other stories and other people that eventually could become part of it, so the town tells me essentially where the focal point is going to be.

What made you want to build around Swami in “A Chiara”?

It’s funny, I had actually submitted the treatment for “A Chiara” a few weeks before meeting Swami for an audition for “A Ciambra,” so in Italy here making films like this, they’re low budget and we always have development ready for the next one, so as soon as we finish one, we can keep the development funds going to keep making another. I remember being in a rush to make a deadline for a French/Italian co-production fund [which] was just before this audition I had to do for “A Ciambra,” so I rushed to get the treatment done – five pages, got it in, we sent it off and literally a week later, I met Swami. At the time, I didn’t have a role for her in “A Ciambra,” but I remember thinking to myself it’s going to be this girl [for “A Chiara”] and I can’t tell her now because she’s nine years old and I don’t know what’s going to happen with that film. I don’t want to disappoint her in any way, but in my mind, from that point on, she was “A Chiara.”

Of course, like “A Ciambra,” you’re not only casting her, but her entire family. What was it like getting to know the Rotolos?

It’s just part of living in town. Swami came to an audition ultimately because I knew her cousin and I knew her aunt. We were already friends and we would hang out on weekends. That bar that you see [in “A Chiara”] that her cousin runs, that’s actually his place where I’m at multiple times per week, so just living my normal social life, I was watching her growing up. As a result of that, over the course of the years, I made “A Chiara” more and more like Swami as time was going on. I was able to watch her with this eye of studying what it was like to be an adolescent in Giola Tauro, but also just living with them because it’s a very small town, so we’re always constantly running into each other, whether it’s at the beach or just hanging out with family, and I tailored the role specifically to her and things I had specifically seen in her life over the years.

Was the house theirs? There’s a sequence where she moves through the halls as if you’re moving through her mind that’s really effective and I wondered how it was mapped out.

The house is not actually theirs. As is generally the case, we shoot a short film before we shoot a feature film version and the short film version we shot in her house and we realized that was not going to work, not just because of the actual space of the house, but because when we were actually over at the house, there were friends and family members over nonstop and it became a spectacle. [laughs] So we needed a location that we could fully control that could give us the ability to make the film and on a practical level, we decided to recreate her house somewhere else. Then I mapped that sequence out in my mind very early on while writing the screenplay [for that sequence], so we were looking for certain defining characteristics and we were able to find a place that worked well, not just for that sequence, but also for the various dream sequences, which were written for this ground floor and very long, tight narrow hallway.

Because of COVID, you had to work with a smaller crew than you expected. Was it an adjustment?

Yeah, this one was not designed to be as small of a crew. With “A Ciambra,” we wanted our footprint to be as small as possible. We never wanted to make it feel like we were making a movie in A Ciambra. We just wanted it to feel like we were just there and life in the Ciambra was carrying on. Here, we were trying to recreate some things, obviously the explosion and the house and the bunker, but when COVID hit, everyone left, so we were continuing only with nine people. That involved a huge adjustment in terms of the schedule more than anything, not in terms of the ambition of what we were trying to do, but it just became impossible to do as much as we wanted to do in the time we had and also because Italy was shut down, we had a real full lockdown, so no one could come in and out of the region, we could give ourselves the time and take that time we needed to make the film with such a small amount of people.

Obviously, there in COVID, we were very nervous. We weren’t sure we were going to be able to finish the film, but now that I look back on it, the intimacy we were able to create on set is something that I never experienced before. There’s so few of us that everyone was really good friends with everyone, meaning like every actor and every crew member had a relationship, so [in] the more intimate scenes with Swami and her father, which are very emotional, we never went into a situation where we [had to] keep people off set. Even the scene with the mother and Swami and Chiara and confronts her, like, “Hey, is dad a fugitive?” Originally, I envisioned doing that with no one else on set, but because we know each other so well, there was no inhibitions. Swami never felt uncomfortable with the few people that were left and because of that, we were able to all experience what we were shooting together in a way that was really surprising and really wonderful.

You see a few familiar faces pop up in this – what’s it like bringing Kadous Seihon and Pio Amato, the leads of “Mediterranea” and “A Ciambra,” respectively back on set?

In Giola Tauro, Kadous and I still share an apartment, so it was obviously going to happen and it was important to bring him in, but it didn’t feel different because once most of the crew left, he jumped in and ended up being a grip on the film. He was on set all day every day, so having him be there just felt very natural. With Pio, it was great to bring him back again because since “A Ciambra,” he moved to a nearby town, very, very close, but not quite and we needed to get permission for him to come into the town because the restrictions on movement between regions was very, very rigid during lockdown. So when he came in, he saw his family for the first time since the beginning of the lockdown and we saw him for the first time and it was just a beautiful moment. It would’ve felt special anyway, but because of COVID and what we were able to do with these permissions of getting people in, it had an even greater emotional impact on everybody.

It’s got to be meaningful to the people of Giola Tauro as well as yourself to have this accumulation of memories all captured on film. What’s it like to have them to hold onto?

It’s incredible and I think it’s going to be more and more incredible as time goes on, meaning we’ve captured a moment that everyone has a very strong emotional attachment to, but even more important, one of the things I’m happiest with with these three films is that they mark the beginning for each of these [actors]. Kourous has gone on to be in lots of movies. He was in the largest grossing film of all time in Italy – he didn’t have a major role, but he was in it. Swami, just last week, became the youngest actress at the David Di Donatello to win best actress and the first one to do it for her first film, so this is clearly the beginning for her. More offers are coming, she’s going to be doing things and it feels very special to capture that first moment, that first film with these people who are still and will probably be good friends of mine for the rest of our lives.

“A Chiara” opens on May 27th in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 before expanding on June 3rd.

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