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 from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).