Day and night, Pio (Pio Amato), a cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking, car-stealing 14-year-old boy, roams the streets of a small southern Italian city, rarely sleeping or deterred by the habitual structures of everyday life. Yet, in writer-director Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra, mobility and freedom do not coincide. Pio’s restless perambulations—to rob, to hustle, or to gamble—only highlight the fact that in the face of so much poverty, there’s nowhere for anyone living this city to go. Except, perhaps, to prison—as is the case for Pio’s father, Rocco (Rocco Amato), and brother, Cosimo (Damiano Amato).
The film is most engrossing in its opening act, when its camera is freed from the demands of plot, channeling Pio’s peripatetic spirit. That is, disoriented in the chaos and loudness of the Italian city’s Romani community. Here, family meals are a frenzied affair, with the camera seeking the faces of whoever yells the loudest or cusses the most and finding its focus in the way a dizzy person tries to regain composure. Carpignano conveys the rawness of Pio’s world with a rare insider’s authenticity—that is, until A Ciambra loses interest in the shocking marvels of its own space and tries to find a standardized storyline for the boy: something for him to do apart from simply being.
First the film inhabits the eye of a storm—which is to say, the storm of Italy’s wretched peripheries—before submitting to the more ersatz cinematic will of filling Pio’s life with beginnings, middles, and ends. Except that Pio’s environment already has enough drama without the need of narrative arcs. The chips are down in Pio’s life—he’s bound to going around in circles—and all of Carpignano’s chips are spent in the film’s first act. What else is there to be said about parallel worlds in which toddlers are thuggish mini-adults akin to those from Pixote or City of God, nonchalantly sucking on cigarettes in front of actual adults and responding to parental scolding by telling their mothers that they’ll piss in their mouth? Once the toxicity and the violence is established and surveyed, which is right away, the film runs out of genuine things to say and resorts to a sense of fiction that feels repetitive and fake.
In spite of Carpignano’s search for proper narratives, though, a sense of poesis still turns up in spots. Such as the magical-realist moment when Pio’s desperation leads to the appearance of a horse galloping amid a pile of trash, and then to him following the beast, as if willing to take it for a compass and away from the legacy of his class and family fragility. In another indelible moment where the film allows for lyrical digressions instead of redundant action (such as thefts and smuggling deals gone awry), Pio’s grandfather approaches him to mourn the fact that once their people were free to travel from place to place but now they have bosses and are stuck, leaving Pio with a swan-song type of advice: “Remember, it’s us against the world.”