Dir. Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2011, 100 mins, in Italian with English subtitles
Cast: Yile Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Pasqualina Scuncia, Anita Caprioli, Renato Carpentieri
Review by Colin Dibben
Nuanced, intelligent and sympathetic, this superb portrayal of a young Catholic woman’s coming-of-age is almost anthropological in its exploration of the conflicts inherent in contemporary religion.
Thirteen-year old Marta (Vianello) arrives in Reggio Calabria, southernItaly, with her mother Rita (Caprioli) and her older sister. It’s a city where modernity has brought building sites, highways and constant rush – and then run out of steam, leaving the deprived community with only Catholic ritual to keep it together. And even the rituals aren’t what they used to be: now they are interrupted by mobile phone tones and include songs with titles like ‘Tuning in to God’s frequency’. Like most Catholic girls entering puberty, Marta’s communal life is focused on confirmation classes. In Reggio, these are led by the frightening and facile Santa (Scuncia) for the tired priest Don Mario (Cantalupo). As Marta explores her confusing new physical and spiritual worlds, she finds herself at loggerheads with her older sister and Santa. It’s only after she meets a lonely older priest, Don Lorenzo (Carpentieri), that she can trailblaze her own path to womanhood.
We’re so used to representations which stress the extreme in Catholicism, whether it’s paedo priests or freakish flagellants, that Corpo Celeste comes as a breath of almost fresh air, despite suggesting that Catholic practice is mired in an awareness of its own redundancy – and that the Catholic hierarchy is more interested in right-wing politics than people. There are many standout scenes here: one in which Santa is lecturing on the ‘spiritual battle’ symbolized by confirmation, only to be upstaged by a cat; a cut from a scene in a baker’s that focuses on the workers’ hands to Santa explaining how Christ performed miracles; a scene in a deserted hilltop village, where Marta encounters a statue of the forsaken and crucified Christ that is, as Don Lorenzo says: ‘arrabiata’. If Marta finds the rituals of her religious community ridiculous and cruel, the ‘angry’, forsaken Christ suggests a way forward, for her at least.
The look of the film is off-putting at first, with its handheld cameras and a fly-on-the-wall documentary approach which takes some time to focus on the central characters. But once you’re engaged, the film just gets better and better. Many aspects of contemporary religion are delineated in telling Marta’s relatively simple story: the subordination of faith to the facticity of ritual behavior; the role of religion in gluing communities together, the relationship between religion and politics, between modernity and religion, the disconnect between rituals and individual beliefs, the weird overcoding of puberty by confirmation.
Corpo Celeste is very different in approach from 2010’s Le Quattro Volte, but it shares that film’s concern with religion as a communal and social process. In its focus on a troubled teenager looking for a code to live by, this film is also reminiscent of The Kid with a Bike. If you liked either of those films, you’ll like Corpo Celeste. And if you’re in the unenviable position of having to explain contemporary Catholicism to a teenager, showing them this film would be a great place to start.