SMALL BODY (TIFF2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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In the introduction to the screening of her feature debut Small Body, Italian filmmaker Laura Samani reveals its origins were in 2016 when a man told her about a local legend that held stillborn babies could be brought briefly back to life long enough to be baptized. Instantly fascinated by the story, Samani learned that official history frequently put men in the center of these stories and – as is her nature – she was willfully drawn to find the cracks in that assumption, and to discover where women fit.

In Small Body, she does precisely that. Beginning in an island village in Italy’s north east in 1900, Agata (Celeste Cescutti) has a difficult birth, and while she recovered her stillborn child was taken and buried without her even seeing her. Distraught by the fact this means her unnamed, unbaptized child’s soul will remain in limbo and not able to enter the gates of Heaven, the story of her journey to a church high in distant mountains where children such as hers are granted a single breath – long enough to be baptized – becomes her sole, encompassing mission. Digging up the tiny coffin and strapping it to her back, she runs away from her home on her pilgrimage – facing everything from highwaymen (and highwaywomen) to abduction – to reach the church in an attempt to save her daughter’s soul.

Along with her almost accidental companion and guide Lynx (Ondina Quadri), Small Body is the story of a mourning mother who discovers a desperate, greedy world, where even the most basic kindness seems transactional, and compassion is thin on the ground. But as we learn in some of the film’s most surprising revelations, not everything in Small Body is as black and white as it first seems. Agata and Lynx’s journey unfolds as a series of unexpected twists and turns, with the young mother’s grief and determination remaining the only truth.

Effectively combining long, slow takes with more immersive handheld camera work, Small Body allows Laura Samani to paint her vision of grief, hope, faith and loyalty with gentle yet powerful strokes that cannot fail to linger.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).