A gangster film from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, A Chiara, like The Godfather, begins with a party. That the most memorable mafia films often include a party — each film of Coppola’s saga begins with one, and Goodfellas’ wedding reception scene is among the most dizzying in a film that rarely lets up — is for good reason: gathering a whole milieu into one joyous space quickly introduces a cast at their most endearing and, besides, the environment is intoxicating. This is certainly true of Giulia’s 18th birthday party, which finds nearly every character in the film enjoying themselves in the blue-purple glow of the dance floor. The men at the party are clearly gangsters, carrying about with an unmistakable swagger and framed threateningly on the party’s margins, but this is a sweet affair better characterized by Giulia’s father Claudio’s inability to give a toast to his daughter out of guarded embarrassment. But this is the last time the family will be whole, the tender dance to a lame Ed Sheeran song perhaps the last moment Giulia will share with her father, as later that night he disappears.
Little sister Chiara, however, has no idea what her father does. She is thrown for a loop that night when the family car explodes and Claudio is gone. Days later, she’ll learn the truth from Instagram — unlike period-obsessed American gangster films, A Chiara is pointedly contemporary, marking the mafia as a current social problem rather than a seedy saga of the past — and sets about interrogating her family. Scarier than her missing father’s criminal history is that everyone around Chiara knew, like a familial conspiracy that she was left out of and made to be the only one left wondering where her father went. Remarkably, director Jonas Carpignano turns this into a recognizable portrait of adolescence: growing up is learning the secrets your family has kept from you, that your father is a gangster is just a particularly rough one. The repetition of his main formal approach — handheld shots following behind Chiara’s head — effectively grounds the film in her perspective, even if a more varied approach would have been welcome.
Chiara investigates her father’s disappearance, turning the film into something approaching a paranoid thriller, unraveling secret rooms and connections she wishes she hadn’t found. But as A Chiara becomes more plotted, it stumbles a bit, piling up incident and manufacturing needless drama to put Chiara at a crossroads. It’s not that it’s ever ineffectual exactly, but that the dramatic tension that starts to replace the confusion and frustration of the first half is not as potent but is twice as rote. That the film finds a mostly satisfying ending to its plotting is to its credit, but in providing too many answers, it extinguishes some of its more troubling and intriguing possibilities.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 9.