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Film: Small Body

by
14 April 2022

Stephen Brown reviews the film Small Body

Celeste Cescutti (right) as Agata and Ondina Quadri as Lynx in Small Body

Celeste Cescutti (right) as Agata and Ondina Quadri as Lynx in Small Body

LAURA SAMANI’s mythic film Small Body (Cert. 12A) depicts Agata (Celeste Cescutti), a grief-stricken fisherman’s wife, trying to prevent her stillborn baby girl’s being lost in limbo, a state that is neither heaven nor hell.

She interrupts a funeral ceremony to implore the priest to baptise her daughter while, ironically, he is praying for someone “who has reached the Father’s house”. Without baptism, the child, in effect, never existed. “How long will she stay there?”, Agata asks in Friulian, the regional dialect of north-east Italy where the film occurs. “For ever,” comes the sad reply. “Will I see her again?” “In your dreams.”

The priest, sympathetic, cannot, under church rules, administer baptism unless the baby took at least a single breath. This position was still firmly held in the early 20th century when the film is set. Not until 2007 did the Roman Catholic Church officially acknowledge that limbo reflected an “unduly restrictive view of salvation”.

The film powerfully portrays the suffering of a woman — indeed, any woman — who, after carrying a foetus for nine months, delivers a dead body. Her grief is like the open wound on her hand, administered just before confinement by the womenfolk. “Misfortune departs,” they chant; “Grace comes in,” before dipping her palm into salt water, signifying that God’s favour may sting as well as heal.

Agata’s husband swiftly buries the baby in unconsecrated ground. She seizes on rumours of a remote Slovenian sanctuary where babies are revived with sufficient breath for baptism to be performed. Excavating the makeshift coffin, she embarks on a perilous journey.

Lost in the woods, she encounters Lynx, a youth offering to accompany her to Assunta with its connotations of assumption into heaven. It is a holy sign to Agata of what she craves for the daughter on her back. Lynx, though, isn’t really that kindly a person. This seemingly wild boy is played by an actress, Ondina Quadri. Perpetually having an eye for the main chance, Lynx nevertheless becomes a constant companion, despite betrayals involving bandits and hazardous physical conditions. But people also pray for their well-being when they enter a mining tunnel, and villagers staunch Agata’s loss of blood.

Both characters are themselves in limbo, unknown for who they truly are. What are you really called, Agata asks. Her question elicits the reply: “You don’t give a name to dead things. . . If I died, nobody would know.” “I would,” she says.

Her courageous journey is a wake-up call to re-enter a world of joy and woe. She has spared herself nothing in seeking a place of blessings. It is at this point that we are given a sense of heightened reality. Samani, whose earlier short film The Sleeping Saint covered similar ground, is asking where our love goes when what we cherish dies. While she poses more questions than answers, this is a brooding consideration of the hope that every one of us, dead or alive, may be encircled in the arms of divine love.

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