Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 20, 2011 4:01 am 
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Coming of age in Calabria

Italian director Alice Rohrwacher's debut feature is obviously not going to be just a a quiet, understated study of a pre-teen girl's first experiences of religion, a new environment, and sex, though of course those are heady topics anyway. That's clear from the opening scene, a hand-held depiction (shot by excellent French cinematographer Hélène Louvart) of a realistically kitsch outdoor saint ceremony, complete with unappealing priest and recalcitrant speaker system, that is already something out of a latter-day Fellini. And where is all this happening? In a studiously rendered, newly rebuilt Reggio Calabria, which looks like a garbage dump and a highway, and whose newer church interiors look like cineplexes.

But tendentiousness is avoided by having everything that will follow filtered through the lens of almost-13-year-old Marta ( a limpid and picaresque Yle Vianello), the protagonist, who has recently been brought back to Calabria with her childish young mother Rita (Anita Caprioli) -- uisually exhausted from working at an industrial bakery -- and her annoyingly bossy and condescending 18-year-old sister after they'e all come back from ten apparently fruitless years in Switserland. It's Marta who get sent to a confirmation class to meet other kids and, I suppose, get with the local scene, in which a giddy pop, plastic version of catholicism is a central feature. "Seeing the Spirit is like wearing really cool sunglasses," is one of the slogans the kids are sold. Marta doesn't even know how to do the dign of the cross. But she's a quiet and perceptive child.

Rohrwacher, whose older sister Alba is a famous Italian actress, is content with crowded vérité sequences of relatives and neighbors and the jaw-dropping confirmation classes for a while. Pasquilina Scuncia is strong in these scenes as Santa, the unctious, goading teacher who's obsessed with the priest, whom she's either having an affair with, or would like to. But then the writer/director embarks on a lengthy fugal passage that touches some profound and shocking chords. Marta runs far out of town pursuing a man on a vespa who's been sent to kill some neworn kittens found in the churchand dump them in the river. So much for Christian kindness coming out of this church, which is big and ugly and has a futuristic neon cross of the altar that looks vaguely corporate and commercial.

Woven in and out of the whole film is the stunningly unappealing local priest, Don Mario, played by Salvatore Cantalupo, who in Gamorrah was the tailor who stupidly thought he could outwit organized crime. Don Mario is similarly doomed, and venial. He thinks he can force signatures from obedient parishioners to help get himself promoted to a more important church that might step him up to bishop. There is not one ounce of authentic religiosity in the quietly creepy Don Mario. Somehow he winds up finding Marta on her useless kitten-saving odyssey, and taking her along in the SUV when he goes to his village church to collect a large wooden crucifix, which is meant to be a central part of the confirmation ceremony that is to take place any minute. The crucifix won't make it. But while the priest isn't looking Marta gets to fondle the carved muscles of the wooden Jesus, her sexual and religious explorations momentarily dovetailing.

In the little church, grabbing the carved Jesis on the cross, Mario clashes with an older priest who might be his own father. Smoking a cigarette in the hurch the older man gives Marta a lesson about another Christ, not simple and good but misunderstood and angry. When Marta tells Don Mario about this Christ, it makes him run off the road and the wooden Jesus falls down into the river.

Outlines this way, these events may seem overly pointed, but Rohrwacher makes them work, partly by cross-cutting with preparations for the confirmation, which is supposed to take place now, and partly because everything is beautifully filmed. Don Mario is very late because he has stopped to eat a good meal in a seafood restaurant, while Marta stands around waiting. At some point in this extraordinary afternoon Marta has her first period. Maybe Rohrbacher loads her dice pretty heavily, but her use of the local trappings of modern, kitsch, uglified Calabria, her staging of birthdays and confirmation classes and creepy encounters with various church officials, not to mention the trip to the outlying town and the "authentic" older priest, as staged with great energy and assurance, Vianello, Scuncia and Cantalupo are all pretty memorable, and one has the feeling that Rohrbacher really cares about this stuff. The way things are lately, an Italian film this good is cause for celebration. The place and the child are quite memorable.

Corpo Celeste/Celestial Body debuted in the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes this year and is part of the main slate of the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this reveiw. Film Movement has bought Corpo Celeste for North American release.

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