IN THE CRITIC’S CHAIR | Corpo Celeste

 

 

Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste fearlessly leaps between the ecclesiastical and the everyday, functioning as both a measured study of Italian Catholicism, and a symbol-heavy allegory for the awkward trepidation that accompanies adolescence and most other kinds of transformation. Critics were split on this combination, judging the film’s more overtly symbolic moments as both subtle and over-laboured, but remain unified in praising its observational precision. 

 

All European cinema is faced with the unenviable task of offering something contemporary without leaving inevitable comparisons to a celebrated canon unanswered. Corpo Celeste is no exception, as Sherwyn Spencer notes similarities between the affective restraint of Rohrwacher’s film and the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers in Little White Lies:

Owing credit to Rohrwacher’s great eye for detail, the film portrays Marta’s isolation with a subtle, observational tone. Its visual style and setting, both gritty and wintry, bring the Dardenne brothers to mind. And scenes in which Marta evaluates her transforming body or experiences her first period are handled with a much appreciated naturalism. 


Informed by an immersive research process and a preference for non-professional actors, Corpo Celeste is unflinching in its stark and slow-paced realism. The result, Thomas Sotinel argues in the Guardian, is a knack for sensory detail and attention to place that recalls Rohrwacher’s earlier work as a documentary-maker:

The use of digital technology, the importance given to the sounds of the city, gives Corpo Celeste a documentary feel. We see the Catholic church waging a commercial battle with various Protestant groups much more at ease with the rules of show-business. 


As Jaime N. Christley notes in her review for Slant, this effect in-part stems from Rohrwacher’s sharp instinct for when to withdraw as a director and let her stories unfold on their own terms:

I grew to admire Rohrwacher for allowing the film’s pair of intertwining stories (an adolescent girl experiencing her home country as if for the first time, after spending most of her life in Switzerland; the parish priest, who is also the landlord of much of his community, copes with his own questions of change and the possibility of relocation) to develop without seeming to be prompted by an overdrawn, schematic parallel between them. 

Rohrwacher responds to the uneven complexity of the world with an at-times clunky but always insistent curiosity. An observational approach which, as Meredith Slifkin notes in Film Comment, mirrors the worldview of her thirteen-year-old protagonist:

Formally the film is often an expression of Marta’s subjectivity, exuding stillness and a certain darkness that seem to reflect Marta’s alienated state of mind, interspersed by cuts that break off without much warning, again conveying Marta’s disjointed impressions of her world. 

Others are less forgiving of this apparent redoubling of Marta’s adolescent lack of subtlety. For the New York Times, Rachel Saltz found the film’s symbolism heavy-handed:

Ms. Rohrwacher combines a documentary impulse (effective in family scenes) with a more allegorical one. Her film gets clunky when allegory has the upper hand, and that means Corpo Celeste often stumbles, along with its 12-year-old heroine, Marta (Yle Vianello). 

However, writing in the Village Voice, Mark Holcomb ultimately finds Rohrwacher’s film a work of cinematic harmony:

Rohrwacher almost overplays her metaphors (as when the father’s boyhood-village crucifix slides over a cliff en route to its new home), but her understated characterizations, cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s rapturous range, and especially Vianello’s eerie grace combine to make Corpo Celeste the ideal cinematic antidote to the summer doldrums. 

 

Corpo Celeste is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to a new film every week.