Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Alice Rohrwacher's CORPO CELESTE views today's Italy by way of religion and family

Opening theatrically simultaneously with this year's Opens Roads festival of new Italian cinema, CORPO CELESTE, the first full-length narrative film from Alice Rohrwacher (sister of one of Italy's top actresses, Alba Rohrwacher), is exactly the kind of movie with which Open Roads often graces us. But this one quickly picked up its own theatrical release via Film Movement, an unusual distributor that spies quality films with immediacy for use in its DVD movie-of-the-month-club and occasional theatrical release. This one proves a good, if not great, film about Italy today and how the country's religion impacts its citizenry (and vice versa).

Ms Rohrwacher, shown at left, who wrote and directed the movie, tells the story of a 13-year-old youngster named Marta, who, though born in Italy, has lived in Switzerland for the past ten years, which comprises most of her life to date. Now, she and her mom and her big sister are back in Italy, living with mom's extended family, and Marta is not having a very good time.

Well, of course. Italy is going through a bad economic and political period, so turning to religion for any kind of intel-ligent comfort or outlet, as shown here at least, simply will not work. By making her protagonist a kind of immigrant -- which is certainly in keeping with one of the main themes of this year's Open Roads (and probably with much recent Italian cinema) -- the filmmaker sets up an interesting premise.

How different Marta (played quite believably by newcomer Yle Vianello, shown above) would probably be, had she spent her entire life in Italy. Would she question authority, particularly that found in religion, so fiercely? Probably not. Certainly none of the other of her classmates do, while the adults on view seem to take it as a necessary... well, not evil, exactly, but maybe a necessary drudgery. As one male family member tells Marta regarding the annoying Catechism she must practice for her upcoming Commun-ion, "Learn it now, and then you can forget it." Which is pretty much the attitude toward religion that everyone takes. But not Marta.

The local priest, bored nearly out of his skull and hoping for a transfer soon to a better parish, is at best unresponsive. As played by the fine actor, Salvatore Cantalupo (above, left), the moonlighting dressmaker in Gomorrah, and last seen in New York in two Open Roads movies: Whatsoeverly (click and scroll way down) and Lo spazio bianco (click and scroll way down again), the fellow is less a villain than simply part of an increasingly problemantic country where religion, as does so much else including television and the media, simply exists to keep the power structure in place and the populace complaining about it as little as possible.

The woman who teaches the Catechism and prepares the kids for their Communion is very well played by a new (and probably local) actress named Pasqualina Scuncia (shown above, center, from a rear view). The scene in which young Marta baits her teacher, together with the response Ms Scuncia gives, is terrible, resounding and sad. As is a later scene in which a litter of newborn kitten is dispensed with -- without a thought for life, caring or -- hey, what's that question Christians love to ask -- "What would Jesus (or better yet, St. Francis) do?" And this is the religion that gets so worked-up about abortion?

Corpo Celeste is a particularly ugly movie visually -- which is, I suspect, exactly what its filmmaker was after. The panoramas we see look desolate and uninviting, as do the characters when they are caught simply thinking or staring. This is an Italy on, if not its last legs, probably its penultimate. Ms Rohrwacher offers a religious critique via visuals and few words, as in the scene in which the Catechism class (below) imitates the blind man healed by their savior. Perhaps the loveliest shot in her film is that of Jesus on the cross, floating face-up in the sea (shown at bottom), that provides a few moments of surprising beauty.

So what makes the movie only good, rather than great? For me, its because everything we're going to learn from the film has been told us with the first ten or fifteen minutes. After that, despite all the further incidents, it's simply business as usual. Some have evidently found a grace note in what happens at the climax regarding another family member and Marta. Fine: You could see this as sweet and moving -- if not a little sentimental. It is certainly believable that someone who spent most of the time "downing" Marta would suddenly rise to her defense, should an "outsider" make a nasty comment.

Finally, Corpo Celeste strikes me as an almost typically bleak-and-real festival film that garners a lot of praise at various fests but doesn't strike a deep chord in general audiences. We shall see. Portions of The Catholic Church in Italy have denounced the movie as sacrilegious, while individual priests have defended it as an important critique of their institution. The filmmaker herself has been told that an organization that trains Catechism teachers has shown the film in its programs -- to better develop teaching skills. (We're hoping it's using the movie as a negative, rather than a positive, look at Catechism training.)

Corpo Celeste opens this Friday, June 8, in New York City at the FSLC's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. A few more screenings will be coming up around the country over the next few weeks. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters. As usual with Film Movement, a DVD will appear, along with possible Netflix and other streaming, eventually.

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