Alice Rohrwacher's debut feature brings the Dardenne brothers to mind.
Growing up is hard to do. This is especially true if you’re new in town, not particularly outgoing and your sister is giving you grief about wearing her bras – even though you’re arriving at that difficult age where you need them. That’s the situation in which 12-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello) finds herself in writer/director Alice Rohrwacher’s auspicious debut feature, Corpo Celeste.
After moving back to Italy with her mother and older sister (there’s no mention of her father) having spent the last 10 years living in Switzerland, Martha begins attending catechism class in preparation for her upcoming Confirmation.
While the classes are meant to be a way for Marta to make friends and learn about the consolations of Jesus, even the most sincere efforts of the teacher (Pasqualina Scuncia) to keep lessons exciting are met with disdain by the unengaged flock.
Parish priest Father Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo, delivering a pleasingly unsettling performance) appears perpetually discouraged and distracted. When invited to watch the choir rehearse, he reluctantly agrees but comically wanders off before they even finish the song.
Aside from carrying out God’s Work (like collecting a life-sized figurative crucifix from an abandoned church), he’s also politicking, trying to manoeuver a transfer for himself to a larger church where he can have more impact and feel more relevant.
Owing credit to Rohrwacher’s great eye for detail, the film portrays Marta’s isolation with a subtle, observational tone. Its visual style and setting, both gritty and wintry, bring the Dardenne brothers to mind. And scenes in which Marta evaluates her transforming body or experiences her first period are handled with a much appreciated naturalism.
The film might be termed a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also about the eternal question of faith in an increasingly secular world. There’s even a lovely little nod to Tarkovsky’s faith-angst masterwork, The Sacrifice, in a shot involving a gale and a heavily-littered street. The representation of water as a symbolic element for change – a Tarkovsky staple – also feels particularly relevant here.
The ensemble is well rounded and each character is captured in a fashion that makes them feel realistic and humane. But it’s Marta’s relationship with her affectionate but world-weary mother (Anita Caprioli) that is a particular highlight, especially for it’s moving honesty in depicting the fragility of an everyday family bond.
The symbolically overloaded trip to the abandoned church aside, this promising debut raises interesting ideas for the pious and worldly alike: what makes a place celestial? How does one attain or maintain faith in a modern world that is moving (seemingly inexorably) away from religion? Can heavenliness, in fact, be found a little closer to home?
Strong festival word-of-mouth.
Debut girl Rohrwacher astounds with her skill behind the camera.
Rich, heady filmmaking that employs small strokes on a huge canvas.