(unpublished review, written on occasion of the International Film Festival Arsenals 2011)
The INTERFILM Jury of the Riga International Film Festival “Arsenals” 2011 awarded its prize in the International Competition to an Italy-Switzerland-France co-production which had its world premiere earlier this year in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Corpo celeste is the writing and directing feature debut of Alice Rohrwacher, who had collaborated on several documentaries as a cinematographer, editor, writer and co-director. Her previous experience is evident in this film as, with a documentarist’s eye, the young auteur discovers a world new to her (and to her protagonist as well): the life of the Church in a small community of the Reggio Calabria region (southern Italy). In their intertwined “Alice in Wonderland” perspectives lies the strongest point of this coming-of-age and coming-of-faith film, loosely inspired by Anna Maria Ortese’s book of the same title.
Having recently returned to her native town, after a decade spent in Switzerland with her family, “almost” thirteen-year old Marta (sensitively played by Yile Vianello) has to attend a series of bizarre catechism classes, meant to prepare her for the compulsory confirmation (that is “the definitive confirmation of Christian choices”). However, Marta refuses to take anything for granted and questions the very foundations of religion, such as the character and the body of Christ (her intimate moment with a life-size crucifix from a remote mountain village is one of the most intense and beautiful sequences in the film).
Alice Rohrwacher employs other poetic and symbolic images (such as Marta’s knocking the ceiling lamp and enjoying the resulting games of light and dark or stepping slowly into the water and, most of all, the dream-like sequence with the protagonist, shot from behind, walking through a deserted, littered street, as the wind starts blowing), but as the same time she is very keen to observe and reflect, as accurately as possible, the psychological and even physiological motivations of her characters (the adolescent girl, impatiently waiting for the growth of her breasts, has her first menstruation on the big day of the confirmation), together with the social mechanisms of the community (the local reverend is into real estate and, aiming at a larger parish, is gathering signatures to support the Church’s favoured candidate). The camera, masterfully handled by the exceptional French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, is extremely physical, focusing on the body and especially the expressive face of the protagonist, but, where needed, it draws back to capture more of the almost neorealistic setting or to emphasize the paradoxical relationship between religion and modernity (we find several relevant examples in the catechism classes and the confirmation, but one image that particularly stays with us is the crucifix tied to the luggage rack of the reverend’s car as it negotiates the curves on the mountain road).
Corpo celeste is a powerful debut feature, with highly emotional moments and deep insights into the life of the Calabrian people, a film about the loss of humanity and the courage to stand for what you believe in. Alice Rohrwacher is undoubtedly a director worthy of attention.