In a small Romani community in Calabria, Pio Amato is desperate to grow up fast. At 14, he drinks, smokes, and is one of the few people in town to easily slide between the regions’ factions — the local Italians, the African immigrants, and his fellow Romani. Pio follows his older brother, Cosimo, everywhere, learning the necessary skills for life on the streets of their hometown. When Cosimo disappears and things start to go wrong, Pio sets out to prove that he’s ready to step into his big brother’s shoes, and in the process, he must decide if he is truly ready to become a man. One of the things that makes Jonas Carpignano such a remarkable filmmaker is the skilled performances he gets out of his non-actors. We first met young, charismatic Pio Amato a few years ago in Carpignano’s first film, Mediterranea, which dealt with members of the African immigrant community in Italy and how they were treated by the locals. In this movie, Pio takes center stage with his real-life family members, all playing fictionalized versions of themselves in a way that rings so true that you’d swear they were graduates of the finest acting school. A Ciambra, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, won the Europe Cinema Labels Award at the Cannes Film Festival and was Italy’s submission for this year’s Academy Awards. I sat down with Jonas Carpignano in Los Angeles to talk about his unusual style of filmmaking.
Danny Miller: I was flabbergasted to learn after seeing the movie that all of the people in it were non-actors. Did you know from meeting them during the making of your first film that they would be able to pull off performing in major roles?
Jonas Carpignano: Well, I had already worked with Pio and I knew he had a certain kind of charisma that translates very easily to the screen. And when I met his family, I felt they had an openness to them that would allow the viewers in. I think what was key to me was their unforced likeability more than any specific acting ability. For whatever reason, it’s easy to see yourself in them and for audiences to feel like it’s okay to go on a ride with them for the next two hours. That was definitely the case with Pio.
Yeah, I totally related to him even though my life and childhood couldn’t be more different. But you must have had some anxiety about bringing his whole family into the film?
Yes and no. I mean, I knew that they had never acted before and that it would be a challenge to consistently get performances out of them over the course of a 90-day shoot. But at the same time, I knew it would be easier for them to act amongst each other than with any kind of foreign element. I definitely noticed that when we shot scenes outside they were way more self-conscious than when we were inside their home. I remember that whenever I took Pio outside the community for a scene, he’d always say, “Everyone is looking at us!” The key to the film was keeping the situations very natural for them. I never wanted to put a traditional filmmaking structure in their lives, I wanted to adjust our structure to the actual rhythm of their lives. So, for example, when Pio wakes up in the morning, he’s actually waking up.
What? You’re kidding!
No, it’s true. We’d get there in the morning, set everything up, and when we knew it was time for him to get up, we’d shoot the scenes.
And yet he’s still playing a character, so he has to know what he’s supposed to do when he wakes up and finds you all pointing a camera at him first thing in the morning.
Sure. I’d tell him beforehand. Of course, being 14, he was still upset whenever we woke him up, but he knew we’d be there. The same with the dinner scenes, those were all “real” in the sense that the family was really having dinner, I would never have considered recreating a dinner scene in the daytime, that just wasn’t an option. We just followed the rhythms of their lives.
But they were reciting lines that were part of a story you’d written. I can’t imagine my own family members being able to pull that off in any kind of believable way.
Ah, but my process was that I never I never wrote anything that they didn’t say in the past. So, for example, at the dinner table scene when the mother has that incredible monologue, I didn’t write that, she told me that story years ago and I just wrote it into the script. Over the years, I’d ask her to tell me that story again and again, so we were rehearsing even though she didn’t know it. For me, that scene is about showing how tight-knit they are but it’s also about seeing the way they feel about the immigrant community, that was the intention of the scene, and that was the story that did it for me. So they’d be sitting there actually eating their dinner and I’d just say, “Okay, Iolanda, now is the part where you tell that story,” and she was able to tell it very easily.
I have to say I was obsessed with Iolanda (Pio’s mother) — I felt like I was watching Anna Magnani with all her skill and charisma. Do the family members consider themselves actors now? Can you imagine them doing something in that field on their own, without you at the helm?
Well, out of all of them, I think Pio has the most opportunity if he wants to continue doing this, but at the moment he’s probably the least likely to. He’s at that stage of adolescence where he’s just not interested. He’s got a girlfriend, he’s got a car, that’s his life right now. I tried to get him to come with me to Los Angeles and to other countries but he’s just not having it.
I saw the video of all of you at Cannes after the screening and he really didn’t seem to want to talk on that stage. Has he ever done a press interview?
Not a single one. He just won’t do it! One of the tabloids, like the Italian version of Us Weekly, went down to the Ciambra, looked everywhere for him, and he hid from them! One of the reporters called me and wanted me to come down and help and I just said, “I can’t, I don’t want to be a part of that.”
Good for him. And yet at the same time, you want to say, “Kid, this is your moment, take advantage of it!”
Well, I did get through to him by phone that day and convinced him to let them take a picture just so they’d leave, and he did do that!
I loved spending time in that culture. God knows “gypsies” get a lot of bad press these days. Being Jewish, when there are films that come out with Jewish characters, my relatives would always worry, “Is it good for the Jews?” Since this is a gritty, honest portrayal of the lives of people in that area, did you or the Amatos have any concerns about how the Romani community would come off in the film? Was that a discussion?
It was more a discussion I’d have with myself. I’d think, okay, the things you’re going to see in the film, does that paint them in a bad light? But in the end I didn’t think so. I know some people think that “you are what you do,” but I don’t fundamentally believe that. I’ve learned that people, especially in these circumstances, do what they need to do to get by. I would never consider the people in that community “thieves,” they’re just people who are trying to survive with the limited opportunities and limited schools that they have.
And we totally empathize with them in the film, it’s not like they’re going around murdering people.
Exactly. I think people understand why they’re doing certain things. Of course, the far right groups in Italy were horrified by the film getting chosen to represent the country for the Academy Awards. For me, that was a big victory.
To me, it means a lot that not all of the protagonists in contemporary Italian cinema are white Italians. If you think about what Rossellini did for the country —he constructed the identity of what Italy was after the war through his cinema. This idea of Italy exists through him. But later on, very few filmmakers tried to contribute to that image by saying, look, we are more than just this monolithic vision, we also have Chinese people, black people, Romani people, and so on. Unfortunately, that part of the population has been ignored by Italian cinema for a very long time. So the fact that the protagonists of the Italian nominee for the Oscars are Romani means that we’ve taken large steps to recognize that these communities are also Italian. They’re an important part of our social fabric which is something that needs to be recognized, especially nowadays when people are trying to pull countries apart.