Diff 2017: A Ciambra tells the untold stories of daily lives in Mafia country

The director Jonas Carpignanon took an immersive approach to his immigration tale

Pio Amato, 15, who stars in ‘A Ciambra’, previously worked with its director in Mediterranea, a 2015 film. Courtesy Diff
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"It's hard to pinpoint why I love him so much – it was a feeling born from the first time that we met, and I've watched him grow up," says director Jonas Carpignano about 15-year-old Pio Amato, the star of his second film, A Ciambra, this year's Italian Foreign Language Oscar nomination.

American-Italian director Carpignano first met the Romany youngster from rural Calabria while researching his 2015 debut film, Mediterranea, about immigrants from Burkina Faso who arrive in southern Italy on a boat. Amato, who was 11 at the time they met in 2013, was a secondary character in Mediterranea, cast as an artful dodger type.

In A Ciambra, Amato takes centre stage as Carpignano tells this story of the interconnection between African immigrants and European locals from the perspective of the Amatos, one of four Italian families that rule the roost in the coastal town of Gioia Tauro by hook or by crook. Carpignano says that it is no coincidence that crime families would come into contact with immigrants.

"Because immigrants have to make use of the underground economy, they are going to rub shoulders with the people who run the underground economy. They are going to have to deal with the mafia – that's something that happens with their everyday life."

The resulting film is a neo-realist criminal tale in the aesthetic tradition of Roberto Rossellini, who made landmark films Rome, Open City and Paisan in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, shooting his tales on location in among the war-torn streets and bombed-out buildings of Rome. The vignette in Paisan in which an orphaned boy steals the boots of an inebriated African-American GI was a particular influence on Carpignano. It is also the favourite film of director Martin Scorsese, who is an executive producer on A Ciambra.

The 33-year-old also directs in a similar fashion to Rossellini, immersing himself in a place over a long period of time and shooting in a quasi-documentary style, imposing a fiction on real situations – although this approach can create major difficulties when you're trying to make a narrative feature. "For these locals, making a film was tangential to their normal lives," he says. "We were shooting in their actual houses, and it's one thing to take someone away somewhere and say we are now shooting a scene, and it's another to say we are coming to your house and you should be there, and you're then waiting hours for them to show up."

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Carpignano, who grew up in New York and Rome, would spend months hanging out with Amato and his family in Calabria, observing and partaking in their lives. Every once in a while, something would stay with him and become an important element in the film. His primary goal is to show the good and bad sides of all the characters, without judging them. His love of the people is palpable: "I'm still inspired by the place and there are a lot of stories that I want to tell there."

A Ciambra is screened on December 10 at 3.30pm at Vox 6, Mall of the Emirates