ONE SCENE | Corpo Celeste

The thunderous symbolism in Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste. By Louis Rogers

 

Marta’s teacher’s new game to help prepare her students for Confirmation was presumably taken from some compendium of vaguely new-age exercises designed to make the Catholic Church relevant to contemporary youth. It’s called “The Dance of the Man Born Blind”, and it’s going to help the class understand how Jesus worked miracles with this hands. Next thing we know, a silent, tentative conga line edges through the church – each child wearing a blindfold. They are a poignant mishmash of bodies, their arms zig-zagging in up and down reaches, registering an age at which half your classmates look like kids and the other half like they’ve got mortgages to pay. No one looks at ease.

Corpo Celeste has a few moments like these in which the symbolism appears like thunder: the blind leading the blind – got it. Later, just as boldly, a crucifix tumbles off a cliff and into the sea after a more than slightly implausible mishap. Within a context of vivid and specific realism, however, these overtly symbolic moments find a different kind of potency. This is a film about the uncertainty, equivocation and doubt of early adolescence; it’s certainly about how religion responds to those instabilities (“you’re feeling useless, bored, depressed: the Church is the answer you’re looking for” one of Marta’s worksheets reads) but it’s also about a need for sense and meaning in all their gut-churning generality. The film’s glaring symbolic moments invite or even dare us to hang on to them as monuments and bulwarks among the mess of everyday life. Either that, or make the equally daunting decision of consigning them to mundane insignificance. 

Temporarily blind, the Confirmation students run their hands along shining pews and fumble their way around lecterns. This tactility is characteristic of the whole film: Hélène Louvart’s lightly-grained cinematography stays close to its subjects, close enough to touch, and sharply catches the textures of a satin dress hanging in plastic; dough on metal; cold mud congealing in concrete. Marta, and in modulated ways her teacher Santa, the priest Don Mario, and her mother and sister, feels her way, hoping for something to cling on to. The exact purpose of Santa’s game might remain mysterious, but the scene works like a visual and thematic key to Corpo Celeste: visualising the vulnerability that sends us groping for faith.

 

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.