“Memories fill the heart, but they shouldn’t hold back the future. You always have to stay positive.” Though this sage, admirably optimistic counsel is well-meaning, it defies the harsh reality of Sicilian life presented in Michele Pennetta’s contemplative quasi-documentary Il Mio Corpo.
That this advice is given by a priest to a young man embarking on a new life in Europe is also indicative of a film which sees faith – be it in a higher power or the political institutions in whose hands fates are held – sorely tested. The seemingly disparate tales of Stanley, a Nigerian immigrant, and Oscar, an Italian lad on the verge of adolescence, are kept – for the most part – at arm’s length from one another.
Connections are, however, made throughout as the two threads are eventually woven closer together, be it through luck or design. Both introduced half-asleep with heads lolling against the window of a bus and old truck respectively, the menial, exhausting tasks that each undertake to eke out a living are immediately apparent. Stanley, taken under the wing of the aforementioned priest, cleans the floors of the local church and will later assist with the grape harvest and herding sheep.
Any religious overtone or influence one may read into his activities are never underlined, as it is a crisis of identity and integration, as well as the practical hurdles of assisting his friend Blessed to also gain a visa to remain in Italy, that Stanley must battle from one day to the next. Oscar, trawling the rugged, rocky countryside, helps his father collect all manner of scrap metal under the blinding Sicilian sun. For locals and newcomers alike, this is by no means a land of milk and honey but one of toil and hard graft. Rugged in its beauty, the landscape is overbearing, debilitating.
And whilst comparisons will – justifiably – be made between Pennetta’s second documentary feature and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, the sophomore director gives equal time and attention in exploring two sides of the same coin here, comparing and contrasting the plights of each young man. With no direct questioning or interrogation, Pennetta’s voice and objectives play out through careful, patient editing. Oscar could well be a not-too-distant Mediterranean island relative of the roguish Samuele from Rosi’s much lauded film, but his existence, along with elder brother Roberto, is a far cry from the Huckleberry Finn adventures of Lampedusa rowboats and slingshots.
Even in the opening moments, a comment made by his father, “Don’t talk back or I’ll chuck a rock at your head,” is made without any suggestion of even ill-advised humour. Just one of many warning signs of past abuse, though Oscar may be surrounded by half-siblings from his father’s new relationship, he is often framed forlorn and alone, struggling to look to the future with any of the positivity with which Stanley is encouraged. Free-wheeling on their bikes, or attempting to fix up old scooters, there’s a sense here that escape is the only way out – but with their only experience being the sons of a scrap merchant, what good could possibly come from doing so?
The lack of opportunity for the brothers is amplified by an inability on Stanley’s part to effect change in his own future. Dependent on the benevolence of others, his work ethic and impressive command of Italian are overlooked. His lodgings – a temporary apartment and then a caravan – also speak to the transience of life here. Perhaps then, it is the physical, dogged determination of both mind and body that defines Il Mio Corpo. The priest’s insistence on staying positive reframed as gritting your teeth and simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63