Oct 5, 2011
NYFF 2011: Corpo Celeste
This little gem of an Italian opera prima, directed with intelligence, compassion, echoes of Italian Neo-realism and a dash of Fellinesque absurdity by young filmmaker Alice Rorhwacher, is the coming of age story of Marta, a 13 year old girl who comes back with her mother and her sister to Reggio Calabria after living in Switzerland.
To judge from the movie's locations, this southern region of Italy is consumed by blight, poverty, abandonment and flying garbage. In this milieu, the Catholic Church struggles to protect its grip on the people. Problem is, its message and the way it delivers it, is mostly irrelevant. The Church does little for the people, though the faithful do a lot for the Church. Volunteer women organize events and processions, they care about ritual and community. Yet the poor teenagers like Marta who have to attend catechism class for their confirmation ceremony could not be less interested. The Church is fighting for their attention with much more compelling forces, like pop culture. Marta is experimenting with faith and she is open to catechism. She seems attracted by the mystery of it, and believes genuinely, in her own way. The devoted catechism teacher tries everything: disco songs, slide shows, dance contests and she even blindfolds the kids so they can experience some saint's blindness. She works her soul off with nary a word of thanks by anyone. She also happens to have a major crush on Father Mario, the frustrated parish priest, who dreams of getting out of that parish into a classier one. Even though he is a man of faith, he basically phones it in, but still has the time to collect signatures for the most conservative party at local election time. This practice goes unquestioned by the citizens. He also collects the rent of the apartment where Marta lives with her family.
Through Marta's relationship with the Church, Rohrwacher paints an increasingly damning picture of the inability and the indifference of the Church to address people's real needs. Marta finds a litter of kittens in the Church basement and discovers the reserves of cruelty and heartlessness that these figures of authority who adore Jesus are capable of. The incident with the kittens is so shocking that had Rohrwacher shot the Church burning infidels at the stake, it would have less of an impact. Marta correctly perceives a great discrepancy between what they preach and how they act, and she goes through a Christ-like journey of questioning of the faith that deeply disillusions her of the Church. I have not seen a better or more balanced exemplification of the essence of what is wrong with the Church: its arrogance, its disconnection to the tribulations of real people, its self-provoked isolation from the world, its indifference to real suffering, its incapacity for compassion. But Rohrwacher does not demonize the Church, she only illustrates, through the eyes of a child, the abyss that lies between true faith and an arthritic, outdated institution.