If a cinematic canon were to prioritize an adolescent girl’s point of view, Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste from 2011 would top the list. The first of Rohrwacher’s now several features as writer-director of fiction, Corpo Celeste succeeds as a highly original coming-of-age story set among worn out but still potent Catholic traditions.
Marooned by her family’s move from Switzerland to an urban wasteland in Southern Italy, 13-year-old Marta (first-time actor Yle Vianello) spends her days in catechism, preparing for confirmation—the transition into adulthood in the eyes of the church. Here, the saintly Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia) does all the work and gets no respect. In the sanctuary, a neon cross serves as a placeholder for the “real” crucifix promised by the corrupt priest (Salvatore Cantalupo). While not taken in by the lessons, Marta keeps showing up anyway, throwing sideways glances at her peers, and moving her lips to the secular-leaning songs. Only in the privacy of their cramped apartment does Marta whisper the lyrics into her mother’s ear.
Among the clattering din of grown-ups, Marta’s persistent wordlessness draws attention to her inner life. That fact alone sets Corpo Celeste apart from other girl-centered movies. Marta loves her overworked mother without irony and still clings to her like a child. But she can’t ignore the slow-moving trainwreck of change brought on by adolescence. She feels pressured by her venomous older sister, who uses anger as a cynical shield, to stop “sucking the life” from their mom. When Marta steals her sister’s pushup bra, the sister calls her out among extended family. The humiliation sends Marta running. As the title suggests, Marta longs to reconcile the corporal with the celestial.
Another director could easily fumble teen angst signposts like smuggled bras, messy periods, dramatic haircutting – and one risky decision to see Marta’s developing body through her own eyes. But Rohrwacher and the wisely innocent Vianello prove up to the task, turning those moments into an unusual story of self-determination. (Though given the pervasiveness of the male gaze, this critic still feels protective of Vianello.) Rohrwacher deploys familiar, even potentially damaging iconography without lessening its influence on an individual or selling it back to the viewer.
Perhaps because she also makes documentaries, Rohrwacher works outside of narrative predictability. She also gets help from cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who brought decades of experience in both fiction and non-fiction (Pina) prior to shooting Corpo Celeste. Even in its most farfetched moments, the naturalistic palette of grays and browns shot in grainy Super 16mm keeps the story grounded. The pair has continued to collaborate (The Wonders, Happy as Lazzaro, two episodes of the superb series, My Brilliant Friend). Together and separately their work calls to mind a growing cohort of storytellers who explore who and what goes missing under patriarchy.
Louvert, for example, shot one of 2021’s best films, The Lost Daughter, an Elena Ferrante adaptation along with “My Brilliant Friend.” Both storylines deal in part with women’s struggle between inner lives and outer limitations. Short fiction writer Shirley Jackson (and the excellent movie she inspired, Shirley), fiction writer Deborah Levy, and filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl) swim in similarly symbolic seas. Though Rohrwacher has not limited herself to young female protagonists she continues to explore the challenges that befall characters like Marta, with earnest spiritual longing.
In the case of Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher dangles the prospect of losing Marta to unnatural disasters, best depicted in a pivotal scene when windblown trash envelops her like a swirl of leaves. Yet even Rohrwacher’s critique of religion, an easy target and openly taunted here (a crumbling institution “only for babies, toddlers, and old women. People who have nothing else to do,” says one character), maintains an air of sincerity that strives toward understanding. When Marta finally raises her voice to clarify a key phrase uttered by Jesus, she sets in motion a journey that pushes her to act on her beliefs.
Until this point Marta has kept her distance from the adults playacting at church and the boys she studies from the open rooftop of her high-rise apartment. Through the course of the film they create a makeshift fort or house from trash they gather from the edges of a dried up riverbed. She watches them as the audience watches her, weighing what to rescue and what to discard. Time and time again in Corpo Celeste Marta walks up to the edges and peers over. But to manage in a post-religious, post-feminist world that’s neither, this movie suggests she needs to leave her perch.