THE question is, which heavenly body does the title of the film Corpo Celeste (Cert. U) refer to? It could be 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello), on the edge of puberty, with aspirations to possess a perfect figure. She tries various means of speeding up her physical changes, including impetuously cutting off her pre-adolescent long hair, and stealing a bra from her fractious elder sister.
After a decade in Switzerland, they have returned to an impoverished town in the Calabrian region of southern Italy with their mother, the loving but ailing Rita (Anita Caprioli). In what is essentially a coming-of-age film, we share Marta’s awkwardness in trying to fit into a conservative community, seemingly unaware of its eccentricities.
In an attempt at integration, Rita sends her to confirmation classes, where the catechist Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia) desperately tries to grab the interest of the local youth with trust exercises and pop hymns such as “I’m tuning into God He’s the right frequency”. The medium may be modern, but its message certainly isn’t: the Roman Catholic Church remains the only means of salvation.
Perhaps this is the heavenly body to which the first-time writer-director, Alice Rohrwacher, is alluding. If so, then there is a certain irony intended. The church on display is presented as less than perfect. When it comes to confirmation, the congregation is more concerned about fashions than it is with faith. Its parish priest, Don Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo), has upwardly mobile ambitions not recognised by his bishop.
Mario’s chief pastoral interest is persuading his flock to vote for a right-wing candidate in forthcoming elections. He seems unaware of Santa’s love for him. Marta is selected to accompany Mario to an abandoned church to obtain a life-size crucifix for the ceremony. The journey gives Marta the opportunity to ask searching questions about Christianity, but the answers leave much to be desired. Almost Marta’s leitmotif throughout the film is trying to discover what “lama sabachthani” means.
The priest at the derelict church explains it as Christ’s anger on the cross that God appears to have forsaken him — a notion that resonates with Marta’s emotional state. Previous certainties have disappeared, but new ones have yet to become apparent. When, on the way back, she tells Mario about the old priest’s interpretation, he gets so angry that he crashes the car, dislodging the crucifix that is strapped to the roof. It plunges into the sea below the road. One senses that, despite human frailties and a less than infallible Church, the true heavenly body is the Christ-figure so easily abandoned not by God but by us.
If the film occasionally descends into caricaturing ordinary people’s faith, habits, casual racism, and corruption, it is redeemed by Vianello’s portrayal of teenage angst. Noteworthy is the fact that she is a non-professional actress brought up in a remote village with no electricity. Making this film was her first visit to a city. You can see her sense of wonderment at the world we have become in every shot.
Now on release.