A self-conscious Italo teen prepares for her Catholic confirmation in “Corpo celeste,” the authentic-feeling debut feature of scribe-helmer Alice Rohrwacher. Almost a street-level and youth-centered counterpart to vet helmer Nanni Moretti’s Cannes competish title “Habemus Papam,” about a pontiff in crisis, Rohrwacher’s pic offers a Dardennes-esque look at a working-class teen’s growing pains in a backwater parish in southern Italy. Minor tonal inconsistencies are overcome by this intimate tale’s naturalistic thesping and loose lensing style. Some Euro arthouse play will precede slightly wider distribution in home-viewing formats.
Light-haired and timid Marta (Yile Vianello, good), who’s “almost 13,” has moved back to her native Calabria, at the tip of Italy’s boot, with her hard-working mom (Anita Caprioli, adequate). But because mother and daughter lived in Switzerland for a decade, for Marta, Calabria might as well as be Mars.
Everyday life in the depressed southern province is dominated by Christian traditions, already beautifully captured in the opening scenes, which are set during a religious festival at dawn, organized between what looks like a garbage dump and a highway.
So she can hang out with her peers and make new friends, Marta is sent to youth catechism to prepare for her confirmation. It’s clear she has no clue about religion, which causes some awkward (and, for the audience, chuckle-inducing) moments with her peers, including during a Catholicism-for-dummies-type pop quiz. But a simple and beautifully observed maladroit gesture from Marta, trying to copy a priest’s rapid movements in front of the altar, offers a more elegant and wordless expression of the same idea.
Though the dialogue and the actors’ delivery are natural, the film is strongest when it doesn’t rely on words, which seems entirely appropriate since the protag isn’t much of a talker. There are several poetic moments, including a surprisingly sensual and tender moment between Marta and a giant wooden crucifix that daringly juxtaposes her religious exploration with her awakening interest in the male form.
The grainy handheld camerawork of versatile French d.p. Helene Louvart (“Copacabana,” “Pina”) is clearly indebted to the aesthetic of the Dardenne brothers, an impression reinforced by the lower-class setting, non-pro child actors, spiritual overtones and, most significantly, the way the big payoffs arrive in a couple of small, understated moments of grace. These instances, which suggest Marta is starting to take her destiny into her own hands, are perhaps not particularly original, but thanks to Rohrwacher’s restrained buildup and direction, they certainly feel well earned.
Where the novice filmmaker’s hand feels less steady is in the lopsided treatment of the supporting characters and contextual material, notably the scenes involving the odious village priest, Don Mario (“Gomorrah’s” Salvatore Cantalupo, high and mighty). The film portrays religion as a matter-of-fact part of the village’s fabric, and Mario is a fascinating and fully rounded character. However, Rohrwacher seems unsure how to integrate him into the story, which mostly sticks to Marta’s more innocent p.o.v.
Assembly for the low-budget pic, which was made for less than $1.4 million, is otherwise pro.