Oscars: Martin Scorsese-Produced 'A Ciambra' Examines Life on the Margins in Contemporary Italy

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'A Ciambra'

Director Jonas Carpignano's stark drama employed an entire family of nonprofessional actors to depict the day-to-day struggles of life in a Romani village.

When director Jonas Carpignano learned that his film A Ciambra was Italy’s official entry into the Oscar foreign-language film race on Sept. 25, the evening turned into a celebration to remember. Carpignano was in Southern Italy celebrating the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian, an annual festival that honors the twin physician saints. 

“It’s the best party ever in Italy. We were dancing into the late hours of the night when we got the call,” he says of hearing the news alongside the film’s stars. “Everybody thinks the saints did it.”

The film, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, follows a Romani family struggling to survive in the Ciambra, a favela-type compound outside Gioia Tauro, a port town in Calabria.

In search of authenticity, Carpignano says he changed his entire lifestyle to gain insight into a community that is closed to the outside world. He moved to Gioia Tauro, learned the town’s singular Calabrian dialect and earned the trust of the many eclectic characters in the region.

A Ciambra is Carpignano's second of three films looking at life in Gioia Tauro. The first film, Mediterranea, explored the gruesome voyage of refugees from Africa coming to Italy in search of a better life.

One of Mediterranea’s secondary characters, Pio Amato, is the star of A Ciambra, which explores the political structure of a Romani family living outside of social norms. Fourteen-year-old Pio adores his older brother and tries to prove his worth as a man by helping him in various petty crimes. Pio, already in charge of pilfering electricity for the house, ups his game and learns how to steal cars.

When Pio's brother and father are sent to prison, he becomes the family’s main breadwinner. But after one bad decision, he quickly proves that beneath the facade, he’s still just a kid.

As revealed in the credits, the film’s cast is almost completely made up of just one family: the Amatos. “The way we shoot is just completely unorthodox compared to most shoots that deal with this type of subject matter,” says Carpignano. “We’re shooting them in their homes, in their own clothes as they wake up in the morning. Everything is written, but it’s like dropping in on something real, set up in a way to capture them as they are.”

It’s a new type of filmmaking that appealed to Scorsese. When a famous filmmaker puts their name on a film, their involvement is often a means of promotion. But Carpignano says that without Scorsese, who gave the green light for his fund to finance it, the film would not have been made.

“Pio is growing up, and if we would have waited for the Italian way to get financing, we never would have had the cash to make the film,” says Carpignano.

Scorsese signed onto the project after reading Carpignano’s script and seeing a pitch book of photos  the director had put together. The first time they met was on Skype. And while Scorsese gave him notes, it also wasn’t the usual type of feedback.

“The most valuable thing about him is he comes at it like a spectator — he talks about it experientially,” Carpignano says. “He sat me down [and took me] through his experience of watching the film and what resonated emotionally. ‘This is where you had me. This is where you lost me. Could we tilt the film toward the more intriguing elements? I’ve never lived with these people before, and I want to get into their story.’”

Carpignano, who worked as a second unit director on Beasts of the Southern Wild, has always worked with untrained actors. After the success of Beasts, he saw the film's young star Quvenzhane Wallis become a sensation virtually overnight, complete with an Oscar nomination and an Armani contract. He said this is not the case when filming in a Romani community.

“I wish that I could be the person who said, 'Yeah, their lives were totally changed,'" he says. "This was not the case for Pio. He was here an hour ago raiding my fridge and stealing my cigarettes.” 

Although Carpignano worked hard to get Pio a passport in order to fly him to L.A. for upcoming screenings, he doesn’t expect Pio to make the trip. “He doesn’t want to leave where he is. He has his own problems with his family. The whole idea of leaving that to go do a song and dance is just not appealing to him,” says Carpignano.

The family has only been outside of Italy once, traveling to Cannes by car for the film’s world premiere in Directors’ Fortnight. It was not a rags-to-riches story of a Romani family taking over the French Riviera.

“Cannes was traumatic,” admits Carpignano. “The second we got there, I had to take their father to the ER room because he had an anxiety attack. He was just thinking, if anything happens, he’s in a foreign country and wouldn’t know where to go. It happened again the next day. It was pretty stressful. It was not the fancy villa on the Croisette vibe. It was just like 'let’s do this and get out of there.'”

Despite the difficulties of getting everyone to the premiere, Carpignano says the actual screening was an amazing experience for the family. “There was an epic standing ovation, and a couple of family members started to cry," he recalls. "They were clearly touched. Even the father was trying to sit there all tough, and he was just overcome by emotion.” But the second they got to the afterparty, they all wanted to go back to Italy, and left in the middle of the night to head back home.

In the short term, Carpignano says the salaries the family earned as actors, although not life-changing, were something that could help make their lives easier for the next few years: “They renovated their home in the Ciambra. I tried to go back for a pickup, and it was impossible. They changed the kitchen, changed the walls.”

Carpignano is already writing the third film, which will look at an Italian family that has featured in the other films. “It will look at what class actually means in Calabria. It’s a little bit different to look at what class in Italy means or even what being rich even means when you’re living in a town like this,” he says. “Your social credibility goes a long way and will take you much farther than your financial capital.”