Such a pleasure to watch the intelligent, inquisitive, yet restless, Marta, as her gaze takes in the sights, the sounds, the smells, of her new city, her new reality, and attempts not only to comprehend it, but also, more importantly, to carve her own space within it, to sculpt her own identity by doing so.
Marta (Yle Vianello, such a beautiful name), a 13 year old who has grown up in Switzerland, has recently moved to deeply Catholic and conservative Southern Italy (the film was shot in Reggio di Calabria) with her mother and older sister, Rosa. Alice Rohrwacher, director and writer, in this stunning debut feature film, casts a non judgemental eye, and her lens, not only on a young girl's desire to mould herself within this new reality, within this new community, she feels like an outsider, and is constantly reminder of it by Santa, the priest's assistant, who runs the catechism classes she has to assist in order to undergo the Catholic ceremony of the confirmation; but also on her curiosity on her own growing body, as we see her contemplating in a mirror her burgeoning breasts, then for her to appropriate, and wear, her older sister's bra.
The moment where she finds out that she had had her first period, in a restaurant up the mountains having a snack with the priest, Don Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo), is set by Alice Rohrwacher as a matter-of-fact attitude by Marta, part of her process of growing up, of understanding of her reality, of her being. Her subsequent meeting with the old priest in a disused church located in a deserted village up the Calabrian mountains, paradoxically, by unsettling the view of Catholic doctrine as is being imparted on her, leads her to the independent path she is to follow to carve her identity.
The scene where she asks the meaning of the ritual words she has to repeat during the Confirmation ceremony in the catechism class, just to be sharply rebutted by Santa, resonated deeply in me, as it reminded of a experience I had some 40 years ago, in a completely different context, I had when I asked my Mathematics teacher ( I still remember his name) about the meaning of an equation. His rebuttal led me to completely abandon Maths at school, in spite of having been quite good at it. Somewhat, watching this scene, I understood Marta starting to recoil from her Catholicism, or, rather, from this deeply conservative vision of it that her community has, and tries to make her to sign to. Alice Rohrwacher's camera constantly reminds us of this traditional attitude, as when Marta watches from a rooftop a group of old women singing a religious song in a courtyard, or the initial scene, shot in the night, contrasting a pilgrimage against the secular background of passing trains, and the greyness of that no-man land found in our cities between railway lines, motorways, as dawn breaks-in.
The sad episode of the kittens does not only contributes to her increasing independence of her own self, but also exposes the unwitting double standards, perhaps even hypocrisy, of the Catholicism of the local community, when Marta, and her fellow classmates, enjoy themselves with the kittens they found in the store room of the church, just to be sharply rebutted, yet again, by a disgusted Santa, who gets the janitor to “take care” of the kittens. Marta, in despair, follows him, and watches as he beats the plastic bag where the tiny creatures are on the road, before throwing it into the river. After her attempts to save them fails, Marta is found wandering on the autostrada by Don Mario, the priest, who takes her to a political meeting. to which she wanders in, when she was not suppose to do, before climbing the mountains in search of a crucifix in that abandoned church, a crucifix he needs to make the Confirmation ceremony special, in an attempt to arrest the continuous decline of his church, perhaps giving him enough kudos to get a transfer by the bishop to a bigger parish. As Don Mario tells Marta, being a priest is also a job, what you do can make, or break, your career path.
The Italy of Corpo Celeste is not that of postcards, or the tourist office advertising boards, what Alice Rohrwacher constantly shows us is a ravaged landscape which has been altered, used, abused, and even abandoned, as Marta's and Don Mario's personal pilgrimage to that abandoned village in the mountains shows, and leading to epiphany for both of them.
I have read elsewhere users comments, where the tone is: “Who cares about the state of the Catholic Church?” Perhaps it may be so, particularly for British, or American audiences. However, I feel that Alice Rohrwacher may have not made Corpo Celeste for those audiences, in spite of having been distributed both in Britain and in the Sates. Hollywood studio cinema, to which we are getting more and more used due to their relentless marketing campaigns, is, mostly, designed as commercial products to satisfy the craving for entertainment of global audiences. Corpo Celeste belongs to another kind of cinema, a cinema that looks into the dynamic of small communities, of small lives, into their humanity.
Corpo Celeste is not only about the tribulations of a girl growing up, or about the state of the Catholic Church as seen in the context of a small community, but, fundamentally, casts an eye on a sense of identity in a world which is constantly evolving.
Corpo Celeste is released by Artificial Eye in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray on 10 September 2012.
Set deep in the south of Italy, Corpo Celeste is the story of 13 year old Marta who is struggling to resettle after ten years growing up in Switzerland. Bright-eyed and restless, she observes the sights, sounds and smells of the city but feels very much an outsider.
Marta is about to undergo the rite of confirmation. In the convention of the Catholic Church she takes catechism but confronts the morality of the local Catholic community. A series of subtle moments trace her journey as she connects and conflicts with her mother, sister and the Sunday school teacher Santa. From experiencing her period to making a bold decision to cut her hair, Marta begins to shape her own life for the first time since moving back to Italy.
Corpo Celeste heralds the arrival of a young and distinctive voice. Alice Rohrwacher’s writing and directing debut is a sensitive unveiling of the moral and religious layers that can smother adolescence.
Interview with the director Alice Rohrwacher