Review: ‘A Chiara,’ starring Swamy Rotolo

June 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Swamy Rotolo in “A Chiara” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“A Chiara”

Directed by Jonas Carpignano

Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Italian region of Calabria, the dramatic film “A Chiara” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: After her father disappears, a 15-year-old girl finds out that her tight-knit and loving family has dark secrets. 

Culture Audience: “A Chiara” will appeal primarily to people interested in a well-acted coming-of-age stories about people born into families leading double lives.

Claudio Rotolo, Giorgia Rotolo, Grecia Roloto, Swamy Rotolo and Carmela Fumo in “A Chiara” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“A Chiara” presents in stark and haunting ways how a family can be destroyed by secrets and lies, and how a child caught in the crossfire can try to heal from the trauma. This two-hour drama needed better film editing, but the performances are compelling. Viewers need patience to get through some of the repetitive aspects of “A Chiara,” but the best sections of the movie outweigh the weaker sections. “A Chiara” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Directors’ Fortnight Award.

Written and directed by Jonas Carpignano, “A Chiara” (which means “To Chiara” in Italian) takes place in Italy’s Calabria region and mostly in the city of Gioia Tauro. The Guerrasio family lives in Gioia Tauro, in what seems to be a tranquil, middle-class existence. This tight-knit and loving clan includes Claudio Guerrasio (played by Claudio Rotolo), his wife Carmela Guerrasio (played by Carmela Fumo) and their three daughters: Giulia Guerrasio (played by Grecia Rotolo), who turns 18 years old in the story; Chiara Guerrasio (played by Swamy Rotolo), who is 15 years old; and Giorgia Guerrasio (played by Giorgia Rotolo), who’s about 5 or 6 years old.

Chiara is an energetic, curious and athletic child. She’s first seen doing rigorous exercises in a school gym. And later, it’s shown that she’s on the school’s track team. Chiara has a small group of friends at school. Chiara’s closest pal is a girl about her age named Giusi (played by Giuseppina Rotolo), who frequently joins Chiara in their semi-secretive habit of vaping.

At home, all seems to be going well. Chiara, Giulia and Giorgia like to horse around in a playful manner. But amid all this family fun, there are ominous signs that Chiara senses that something is wrong. While she’s alone in the living room one evening, Chiara sees her father outside the house, and he’s talking to another man in a very intense conversation. They are too far away for Chiara to hear what they’re saying, but she senses that they want to keep the conversation private. She says nothing and goes back into another room.

In other parts of the movie, when Chiara sees things that she knows she’s not supposed to see, the movie’s sound becomes muffled, as if she’s trying to block out what she’s witnessing. “A Chiara” uses hand-held cameras (with cinematography by Tim Curtin), to give the film more of a “home movie,” intimate feel. Some viewers might not like all the shaky cam footage in “A Chiara,” but the filmmakers seem to be going for a vibe where a viewer gets to tag along like a documentarian, rather than “A Chiara” looking like a slick and overly polished drama.

Life seems to be blissful for the Guerrasio family during Giulia’s 18th birthday party, which is being held at a restaurant, with about 30 guests at the party. The movie has a segment of about 15 or 16 minutes (a little too long and needed tighter editing) showing this party, where it doesn’t show much except people talking, eating and dancing. Everyone is in good spirits, and things go very smoothly during this celebration.

At the party, there’s a dance contest where Claudio, who is among the four “judges,” casts the deciding vote between final contestants Giulia and Chiara. He votes for Giulia, who is declared the winner. Later, Claudio dances with Chiara and tells her that he had to vote for Giulia because it’s her birthday. A smiling Chiara says that she understands.

Despite the party being a joyful celebration, there are some more subtle clues that Claudio is troubled. During the group dinner, Claudio is asked to make a birthday toast to Giulia, but he refuses. Instead, he insists that his brother Pasquale (played by Pasquale Alampi) say the toast. At the table, Claudio tells Giulia that he’s proud of her. “You are my life.” They both get emotional and start crying.

About three or four rough-looking men, who are not family members or friends, also show up at the party. Later, when Chiara and Giusi go outside to smoke, four other men approach them on the street and start scolding the teens for smoking. Chiara defiantly tells them to mind their own business, and things start to get tense. But then, the group of men see another group of four men, and their attention turns to these other men for a possible confrontation.

Chiara and Giusi are relieved that this encounter with these men didn’t escalate into something dangerous. As Giusi and Chiara walk back toward the restaurant, they both see Chiara’s father Claudio on the street in a heated conversation with the rough-looking men who were at the party. The men seem to be following Claudio, who sees Chiara and makes a hand gesture, as if to tell her to go away. Claudio then quickly gets in his car alone and leaves.

At home later that night, Chiara hears her parents having a panicked discussion. Chiara spies on them, but the viewers can’t hear what’s being said, because the movie’s sound is muffled. Chiara follows her parents outside without them seeing her. Chiara sees her father jump over a wall and leave.

When Chiara goes out on the street a short while later to look for her father, she sees a man on a motorbike pass by her father’s car and throw something at it. The car almost instantly blows up in flames. Luckily, no one was in or near the car. However, Chiara’s mother runs outside and frantically takes Chiara in the house with her.

When the police arrive to investigate, Chiara overhears her mother tell the cops that she didn’t see anything and that the family did not receive any threats. And where is Claudio? Carmela tells Giulia, Chiara and Giorgia (who are all huddled in fear in the same bed): “Everything is under control. Don’t worry. I just spoke to the police.”

When Giulia asks about the sisters’ father, Carmela replies, “Your father is out there, taking care of everything. You know your dad.” But do they really know their dad? Claudio doesn’t come home.

And when Chiara goes to school the next day, she notices that some of the students are avoiding her or talking about her behind her back. It isn’t long before Chiara finds out her father’s big secret and why he disappeared. Chiara goes home and angrily confronts her mother, who essentially admits that it’s true. Claudio’s secret isn’t too surprising to viewers who see all the clues for what they are, but the secret is shocking to Chiara.

Much of the movie chronicles Chiara’s efforts to find her father. She skips a lot of her school classes to play “detective,” and this truancy has consequences that are shown later in the movie. The mystery-solving part of “A Chiara” is a little duller than it should have been. That’s because Chiara repeatedly goes back and talks to a shop owner named Antonio (played by Antonio Rotolo), once Chiara quickly figures out that Antonio knows a lot of her father’s secrets.

“A Chiara” is told from Chiara’s perspective and her determination to find out the whole truth, even if it hurts. Therefore, not much insight is given to how other members of the family are dealing with Claudio’s disappearance. There’s a powerfully acted scene where Chiara confronts Giulia about how much Giulia might have known, but that’s the limited extent that Chiara is shown having an emotional conversation with either of her sisters about their father’s disappearance.

What’s a little odd about the story is that Carmela seems surprised by how Chiara found out about Claudio’s secret, when it’s the most obvious way that anyone with access to a TV or the Internet could get this information. The only conclusion that viewers can reach is that Carmela is the type of person who likes to be deep in denial about things. It’s open to interpretation if this denial is to unselfishly protect her children or to selfishly cover up some complicit misdeeds.

“A Chiara” is a story inspired by real-life family members, who act as various versions of themselves in the movie. And that’s why the chemistry between these cast members looks so authentic. The movie is about a teenager who has to grow up very fast, but “A Chiara” at times lumbers along in how it tells this story, with the last 10 minutes of the movie looking quickly crammed in to have a rushed ending. This uneven pacing doesn’t detract from Swamy Rotolo’s memorable performance, which will keep viewers interested in finding out what happens to this teenager whose life and family are forever altered by her father’s bad choices.

Neon released “A Chiara” in select U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022. The movie was released in Italy in 2021.

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