Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s debut feature Corpo Celeste (2011) is a gently confident story of a young girl, attempting to survive her adolescence and understand her faith against the backdrop of an alien Italian community. Thirteen-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello) returns to southern Italy with her mother and older sister after spending her childhood in Switzerland. As she struggles to readjust to her new life, she begins to take catechism in preparation for her Confirmation and also in order to find new friends.
Whilst her dowdy teacher attempts to inspire a class of disinterested youths, Marta glimpses how her new home functions and the role that the church plays within it whilst attempting to navigate her own path through. Highlighted is the ambition of the local priest, Don Mario (Salvatore Canalupo), which sees him spend his evenings travelling door-to-door canvassing votes for a local politician; one who will no doubt find him a more profitable placement.
In its moments of allegory, Corpo Celeste is perhaps not the most subtle of films – the promotional image of the blindfolded Marta groping around the spartan church being a prime example – but this is balanced by a number of things. Rohrwacher’s past in documentary seems to have served her well in her creation of a dour and realistic Italian parish, as she invites the audience into a microcosm of modern Italy, complemented beautifully by Hélène Louvart’s Dardenne-like camerawork.
In the same way that the community revolves around the church, so the film revolves around non-actress Yle Vianello and her beguilingly authentic performance as Marta. With few lines of dialogue to speak, she mesmerises throughout. Unsure of where she belongs and uncomfortable with where she is it doesn’t matter if she is fighting with her sister, fascinated by the other kids in catechism, or embarrassed by the sudden onset of her first period, Vianello is never anything less than wonderful.
With a final act that sees Marta take a paradigm-shifting road trip with Don Mario, Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste gives us the suggestion that our heroine may have made a decision about her life and the path that she wishes to travel promising a brighter, or at least clearer, future. With the director’s skill only likely to increase in the years ahead, there would seem to be a bright future there as well.
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