I tend to gravitate towards coming-of-age stories, so naturally I was very intrigued by the Italian film Corpo Celeste upon seeing the trailer. The feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and self-discovery often hit personal chords with me when the film is executed well and they always leave a lasting impression on me far more noteworthy than films of other genres. Corpo Celeste looked promising to fulfill those traits judging from the images of religion and exploration shown through a natural looking style.
I’ve been let down by trailers before, though, but I couldn’t help but still be excited. Luckily most of my expectations were met. Most noticeable is the natural, sometimes shaky camera work. This technique is often very effective in these types of films, as it produces more of a feeling we’re observing the characters up close and personal rather than simply watching a movie. A near perfectly execution of this style is seen in the British film Fish Tank, which this film reminded me of in a few aspects.
The film follows 13 year old Marta who’s recently moved back to Reggio Calabria, her native region in Italy, after a 10-year stint in Switzerland. She’s quiet, sweet, innocent, and curious. She’s more of an observer and and explorer, which we quickly gather from the beginning. Her mother is a hard worker, working at a seemingly rough and fast-paced bakery to make ends meet. Marta’s sister is a practitioner of tough love, which is most prominent when she scolds Marta, who’s just baked her older sister a birthday cake all by herself, simply for wearing her bra.
Marta is soon enrolled in the local Catholic confirmation class, which provides more material for her to observe and ponder. The teacher could be any other school teacher in the way she discusses the scriptures and runs her classroom. The students memorize prayers as they would mathematical formulas. Though Marta doesn’t say a whole lot, especially while in class, we read a lot from her expressions. From the few questions she raises, it’s clear she is more interested in the meaning behind the teachings which dumbfounds the teacher, who would prefer the students listen and memorize.
Marta is an easy character to fall in love with. Actress Yle Vianello is a natural in playing the quiet and adventurous girl. Back to my comparison of Fish Tank, she reminded me of actress Katie Jarvis, not in terms of their characters’ personalities or situations, but rather their organic and authentic portrayal that really makes us believe that they’ve been through what we’re seeing. The little details, such as how she looks at herself in the mirror, how she interacts with her mother, and the look on her face when she’s observing various other characters, make it feel as if she’s more than just acting. And in situations where she’s upset, it’s quite heartbreaking to watch.
There’s a fairly important segment in the film where Marta had been running on the streets (after seeing something quite upsetting) and she’s picked up by the priest, Don Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo, Gomorrah). She had recently been observing the priest’s behavior in pursuing a potentially selfish agenda, which in addition to her confirmation lessons only alludes to the hypocrisy of the Church. While riding with Don Mario, who’s seeking a certain cross to show off to a high-profile audience member, Marta learns much more about the real world and we see her begin to develop her own thoughts on God and faith.
This film does all of the right things for making a movie of this genre. The raw style fits perfectly, the story is minimal and natural feeling. But most importantly, the acting is spot on which if not can easily break a film like this. Yle Vianello dominates, but the entire cast felt authentic. To me, you can make two types of coming-of-age films: one that tells a story with a conclusion where the character learns a life lesson, or one that more observes several scenarios with less focus on a single story. Corpo Celeste is the latter, which in my opinion is a much harder film to make let alone be enjoyable. Everything is executed well here, and the true test of which it passed was whether it made me feel attached to the characters and experience many emotions towards them.
Corpo Celeste is a profound look into the life of a girl finding herself and her faith by way of challenging everything around her. This is the type of movie that offers more of an experience than a story, and leaves you feeling satisfied but more importantly, wondering what’s next for the main character. Having that type of impact draws the line between a good movie and a meaningful film. This has always been one of my favorite genres and Corpo Celeste is another example of why. It may have not been as edgy or gritty as something like Fish Tank, but still had the emotional impact I expect from these types of films.