It is fitting that Corpo Celeste’s theme – an adolescent’s tentative arrival in a new town, and introduction to Catholicism – is about beginnings. For this startling, slow-burning observation of an unfamiliar world through the eyes of a pensive child is a work of debuts.
Not only is it Tuscan director Alice Rohrwacher’s first film, but it also features a remarkable debut performance by Yile Vianello as 13 year old protagonist Marta, and Pasqualina Scuncia in the tragicomic role of an underappreciated, furiously devout Sunday school teacher called Santa.
Set in Southern Italy on the coast, what is first striking about the location is how far it defies stereotypes. There are no lapping waves, beautiful people or golden sunshine – Marta simply sees tumbling hills of tower blocks, wastelands of concrete and scrap, and fellow sorrowful souls as she intermittently gazes out at her hostile new homeland throughout the film, and the Italian is mumbled and reflective rather than animatedly fiery.
Marta, though born in this town, grew up in Switzerland, and has just returned with her mother and terrifyingly overbearing 18 year old sister – “you’re uglier than before” she sneers at her younger sibling, who has had a lengthy experience hesitantly trying on bras and inspecting her transforming body in the bathroom. The naturalism of Marta’s haphazard stumble into puberty sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing, so intimately is it shot; all intentionally awkward, claustrophobic camera angles and stark lighting.
Though studiedly devoid of dramatic events, the skeletal plot follows Marta learning the catechism at Confirmation lessons in the local church, with a handful of wonderfully reluctant other teens (one responds to a theatrically delivered monologue about God’s image and the eponymous heavenly body, “corpo celeste”, with “can I go to the bathroom?”). The lessons are taken by the despairing Santa, who provides welcome comic relief with her zeal for hip new 21st century ways of relating kids to the catechism – one of the songs they learn goes “I’m tuning into God/He’s the right frequency”.
Giving the derivative coming-of-age tale a wide berth, Rohrwacher presents Marta’s rebellion through her questioning the Church’s teachings. She finds an alternative view of Jesus as full of angst and anger, and discovers the corruption and career-driven nature of the parish priest, when on a surreal journey with him to collect an old crucifix. These glimpses betray an anticlerical message, favouring personal devotion to organised church structures and hierarchies, but the very human quality of each character prevents the film from being a thinly disguised social indictment.