Corpo Celeste (Alice Rohrwacher, 2011)
I don’t even remember what originally prompted me to add Corpo Celeste to my Netflix queue. I am relatively certain it has been there since a few days after we resubscribed in November 2011, and I finally got round to watching it in August 2013. It had always intrigued me, but I was a little put off by its place in my queue, which I sort by star rating; it is consistently in the bottom ten percent. I have my hypotheses, now that I have watched it, on why this is. Most of them I am not going to touch on, though if you read between the lines I’m pretty sure they’ll be clear enough. But this one, since it’s part of the thesis for the entire review, I have to put out there—this is one of those art-school-style slow films. There is not a great deal of action here, though there is much under the surface that warrants the viewer’s attention, and (as befits a film that centers around Mother Church as much as this one does) a great deal of symbolism here that will require the viewer to think a bunch, and possibly to be familiar with customs that are not quite American. (There is a wonderful, funny-yet-depressing scene ten minutes before the end of the movie whose significance I would have missed entirely had I not watched Mahomet-Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man the week before, which has a variation on the same shot, but in a much less symbolic fashion, as a part of its closing sequence.) From this, you might actually be able to skip the rest of this review; if you are a fan of slow film of the Ozu/Tarr/etc. variety, I would hazard a guess that you will find a great deal here to enjoy. On the other hand, if you prefer movies that spell things out a little more, you might do better to avoid this one. I hope you are of the former stripe, because if you glom onto what Rohrwacher, turning in her first feature (she previously directed a documentary I have not yet tracked down—but after seeing this, it’s on my priority list), is doing here, there are many reasons to devote your time to Corpo Celeste.
The movie centers on Marta (Yle Vianello in her first screen appearance—I fervently hope it is not her last as well), a thirteen-year-old Italian girl raised in Switzerland, but whose mother has moved back to the Old Country (why is never specified). Her mother (Pasqualina Scuncia, also making her first screen appearance) and older sister (The New Monsters Today‘s Paola Lavini) are not religious folks, but Marta finds herself drawn to the Catholic church, and begins catechism classes under the tutelage of Rita (We Can Do That‘s Anita Ciprioli), the long-suffering assistant to local priest Don Mario (Gomorrah‘s Salvatore Cantalupo). While she initially throws herself into her religious studies with a great deal of fervor, the more she discovers about the inner workings of the church, the more she questions what she had initially seen as her faith—until an act of shocking violence makes her question whether she wants to commit herself.
A movie in which not much happens save one central scene of violence that is almost entirely out of place? It’s obvious Alice Rohrwacher is a big fan of Béla Tarr’s, and if you’ve followed my reviews at all, you know that’s as good as me saying “this is the best thing ever.” It is a film that is chock full of symbolism, it is (to put it mildly) leisurely-paced, and judging by the IMDB boards, a lot of people looked at the movie’s final scene and said “what exactly is it that I am watching here?”. I can’t exactly call this a spoiler: Marta, having wandered down to the beach, meets a small cadre of local children. One of them, eyes wide with wonder, puts something into her hand. This part I did have to look up afterwards: it is a disembodied lizard’s tail. (I had thought it a worm of some sort.) She looks down at it, still thrashing around in the throes of autotomy, and considers it in the context of everything that has happened to her over the course of the film. Is that a spoiler? No—the spoiler lies in how you interpret the scene. But then, everyone has an interpretation. Better, perhaps, to say that the spoiler is in whether your interpretation of the scene is optimistic or pessimistic. In any case, I lost my train of thought there, as so often happens when I am confronted with this sort of beauty. Suffice to say that this is not a movie for everyone. But if slow film is your bag—if you like Ozu and Tarr and Jon Jost and folks like that—you’re going to dig this. There is much, much, much going on below the surface for you to mull over, pull apart, ponder, and talk about with your pals after you’ve watched it, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what the best movies do: make the viewer think. ****