A Ciambra, Jonas Carpignano's tale of a 14-year-old boy growing up fast in a small Romani community in southwest Italy, is an understated, naturalistic take on a story that could easily be delivered with melodramatic cliches. The young Pio (Pio Amato) freely drinks and smokes, and crosses the social boundaries in his region with preternatural ease. When Pio's older brother, Cosimo (Damiano Amato), disappears, Pio's independence is put to the test as he is flung into dangerous situations. "I'm already a man," he declares near the end, in a line that might be a touch too expository. A Ciambra is at its best when Carpignano captures the textures of everyday life, suggesting the neorealists with his use of non-professional actors and on-location shooting. The performers playing the Amatos are a real family (with even the same surname) and Carpignano gives us a close-up view of busy dinners and children teasing one another.
At times, this snapshot of family life feels like a somewhat vague intrusion. We don't necessarily get to know every family member, and are left as a fly on the wall, parsing out relationships and emotions on our own. Pio can also be hard to read, given the actor's young, unstudied status, and it's easy to feel an urge to protect him from the petty crime and sweaty nightclubs around him. In one of the most compelling scenes, both emotionally and visually, Pio encounters a horse at night and follows it, seemingly transfixed. The moment jolts us from neorealism; the horse suggests a fairy tale. Pio's expression may often be ambiguous, but here he conveys an intriguing longing for a better world.