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While I loved the nuanced and sensitive performance of Yle Vianello as Marta, I couldn't help but feel that writer/director Alice Rohrwacher's portrayal of the Catholic church in Corpo Celeste was an overdrawn caricature that only reinforced the usual stereotypes against institutional religion. In contrast, the almost intuitive spirituality Marta possesses of gentleness towards others, wonder at creation, curiosity about the world + its people, reverence for the divine those elements could have been connected to broad Christian doctrines of natural revelation, love for neighbor, and the work of the Spirit, but they were not. Though the ending makes Marta's journey beyond the film feel uncertain, somehow I'm convinced (if it is possible to extrapolate) that Marta will be ultimately alright in the end. She may not find truth in the unfortunate parish she finds herself in, but she's much closer to the Truth than almost everyone else in the film. We see this in the innocent delight over the kittens that she joyfully shares with her classmates. We see this in her desire to understand the phrase from her catechism recitation "Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?" which she goes around repeating to herself without knowing the meaning. This forsaken uttering of Christ on the cross ironically rings quite true in Marta's life as she is mistreated by those in church leadership, cruelly bullied by her older sister, and witnesses powerlessly the brutal killing of the kittens. In spite of all the hypocrisy and vacuity of the parish, when Marta finds herself next to a huge dusty crucifix in a forsaken little village church, she instinctively uses her hands and shirt sleeve to gently and reverently wipe the dirt off the body of Christ. Somehow, in spite of it all, a real spirituality and an intimate relationship with Christ has been apprehended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For me the best parts of "Corpo Celeste" were the scenes of the
Calabrian countryside and the "slice of life" scenes of very believable
characters. I loved the shots of the steep rocky hillsides, precarious
roadways, and broad beaches. (I can't quite call the shots of the
countryside "nature photography", because humans have lived there so
deeply and so long that no matter where you look it's not 100% natural
any more.) The character scenes sometimes seem a little silly and
awkward, not because they're exaggerated or played for laughs but
rather because the scenes really are a little odd. (I wouldn't have
believed them if I hadn't sat through practically identical scenes
longer ago than I care to remember.) In fact, the scenes are so
understated and underplayed it's easy to forget what you're looking at
is truly crazy.
The portrayal of a thirteen-year-old, their dubiousness, impulsivity, unsureness, flashes of reverence, silence, and inability to make a firm decision, seemed spot-on too. (I can't say for sure, because my own memories of being that age have been purposely lost:-)
Interestingly, I saw this only a few days before seeing "We Have a Pope". Both focus on problems in the Catholic church. Both portray the great majority of churchmen as oblivious to how awful their situation really is. Both show us a church that has run on pure inertia for a couple generations, despite its increasing irrelevance to today's "real life". Both even illustrate that gulf with the same image of the incongruity of a churchman with a cellphone.
After that, they differ. "We Have a Pope" probes the very top (the Vatican) and uses lots of low-key humor along with clever scrambling of the church with the theater (even using whole sections of dialog from a Checkhov play) in a somewhat stylish way that results in "eye candy". "Corpo Celeste" portrays the very bottom (individuals in a parish), is more a show of straightforward reality and less analysis, and includes allusions to a great many of the church's problems (repressed sexuality, denigration of females, overt emphasis on politics, shortness of money, empty buildings, meaningless membership rolls, difficulty recycling old assets, etc.).
The problem I have with the subject of the church though is "who cares?" As a person that's been thoroughly separated from anything remotely similar to any church for many decades, it's hard for me to care about the current problems of the Catholic church. (Maybe this is an American reaction and wouldn't be so prominent in some European countries.) Something else has to grab my attention, be it the dramatic appearance of masses of scarlet robes, or the chain link fencing that keeps rock falls from spilling across a road.
"Corpo Celeste" feels to me like there are too many things in it - like it could have been several movies rather than just one. As an example, the shots of the deserted mountainside town (and the contrast with huge, impersonal, but socially fraying Rome) felt to me like it could have been the core of a whole movie. Also, the scene with the first period and the sanitary napkin fits in a coming-of-age story but not an about-the-church story, and left me grasping.
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