★★★★☆

Agata (Celeste Cescutti) is a young woman who gives birth to a stillborn child. She lives on the coast of Veneto in North East Italy in a deeply religious community where the priest assures her that the unbaptised baby is now in limbo where she will stay for eternity.

The year is nominally 1900 but with their tradition – their huts on the sand, their dialect and their magical thinking – the fishing village could just as easily be in the Middle Ages. Agata has fresh hope when she is told of a sanctuary in the mountains where unbaptised babies are briefly and miraculously brought back to life for one breath – time enough for the baby to be baptised and saved from purgatory.

Laura Samani’s Small Body has the rooted magic of an Italo Calvino short story. It’s a folktale that also takes on the feel of a western, as Agata straps the small coffin to her back and sets off on her epic journey to the mountains in the north. It isn’t the last hint of Sergio Corbucci we will notice. Agata is a woman alone in a world full of dangers. When she meets up with a feral young lad called Lynx (Ondina Quadri), he first sets out exploiting her, assisting in kidnapping her to be taken to a rich family to work as a wet nurse, but once she is unexpectedly freed he reluctantly becomes her traveling companion.

Samani and her co-writers Marco Borromei and Elisa Dondi use Friulian dialect throughout, a language that can change from one village to the next. There’s an anthropological interest in these communities where electricity has yet to arrive and there’s no sign of the state, authority wielded exclusively by the priest. These are lives for the most part lived in one place and deeply connected to the land or in Agata’s case the sea, something Lynx has never seen. Agata is in a world she hardly understands.

Cinematographer Mitja Ličen’s camera follows close at Agata’s heels for the beginning of the journey but as it goes on the movement widens to include the landscape and the film takes on a genuine sense of grandeur when the mountains finally loom into the frame. A sequence where their journey takes us under a mountain sees Luca Bertolin’s sound design come to the fore as underground winds blow through the tunnels.

Using folk songs to great effect, composer Fredrika Stahl provides a score that becomes increasingly beautiful as the film goes on and is a reminder of a time when the only culture available was music you made yourself. With Small Body, Samani has created a work of great maturity and power. It is a film about a personal grief which gradually, step by step, takes on a mythic resonance. This is a new and vibrant talent to be watched.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty