Teenage spirituality in Calabria
by Fabien Lemercier
- What lies behind the stranglehold of Catholicism in southern Italy. A realistic, sensitive and subtle debut feature unveiled at Cannes.
Insidious charm and bright beginnings mark 29-year-old Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s directorial debut,Corpo Celeste, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight of the 64th Cannes Film Festival. A sensitive portrait of a young teenager who lands in the dirty, ugly town of Reggio Calabria, the film tackles head on the thorny issue of Catholicism in Italian society.
Becoming increasingly more dense as the intrigue develops, Corpo Celeste [+see also:
interview: Alice Rohrwacher
film profile] successfully unites documentary-like realism and stunning directing; immersion in the psychology of isolation and tragicomic caustic humour; contemplative depth and under-the-surface violence; everyday minimalism and theological infinity.
Marta (Ile Vianello) is a quiet, acne-ridden 13 year-old. After growing up in Switzerland with her domineering older sister, she returns with her mother (Anita Caprioli) to their hometown of Reggio Calabria, a chaotic landscape of overlapping buildings and barren land. Aside from her family and aunt, she is all alone and is plunged into a nocturnal pilgrimage, then enrolled in catechism lessons.
Run by the devout Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia), these classes attempt to stimulate teenagers’ interest in religion through a modernised approach often bordering on the ridiculous: quizzes, virgin ballets, chorus, teaching expressions such as “Feeling the Holy Spirit is like having a great pair of sunglasses”. But the basic message remains the same: "The Church has an answer to every question."
Meanwhile, parish priest Don Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo) has worries of a less spiritual kind. He is out to impress his superiors so he can get a transfer, collecting money from rent – and, most importantly, securing votes from his people for the "right candidate" in the upcoming elections. In this double-sided portrait, the rebellious Marta struggles to find her place and embarks on a journey of self-discovery, wandering about the roofs and streets like an Italian Rosetta, gradually discovering violence lurking under a doctrinal veneer.
A rite-of-passage story that captures viewers’ empathy, Corpo Celeste peaks in the second half with Marta’s "rebellion" against the established order and an impressive escape to a deserted village in a mountainous hinterland. Avoiding the trap of simplistic anticlericalism and going beyond the trajectory of its engaging protagonist, Rohrwacher’s film (with photography by DoP Hélène Louvard) gives food for thought on the social, cultural and economic disarray in southern Italy. This gains resonance with the enigmatic prayer "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" whose secret Marta will discover: Jesus crying "My God, why have you abandoned me?"
Produced on a €1.5m budget by Italy (Tempesta with RAI Cinema and Cinecittà Luce); France (JBA and Arte France Cinéma); and Switzerland (Amka with RSI and SRG SSR), Corpo Celeste is being sold internationally by RAI Trade.
(Translated from French)