Review: Small Body – Cineuropa

– CANNES 2021: Laura Samani’s debut film is a story about women in north-east Italy at the beginning of the 20th century who rebel against the dominant culture and hold on to hope

Celeste Cescutti (center) in Small Body

Just a few years ago, in 2007, the Catholic Church definitively archived the idea of limbo, a place reserved for dead children who hadn’t been baptised. But for centuries, the clergy upheld the Gospel writings, and limbo imposed itself in popular and secular culture, while Dante’s Divine Comedy helped keep it alive in collective memory.

A stillborn little girl is the inspiration behind the title of Laura Samani’s beautiful debut film, Small Body [+see also:
trailer
interview: Laura Samani
film profile
]
, which is a costume drama set in wintertime on a small island in Italy’s Northeast, at the beginning of the 20th century, and which is screening during Critics’ Week as part of the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Nothing can be done for the little one, she’s condemned to oblivion, as her mother Agata knows only too well. Luckily, the local people have their own defences, in the form of beliefs, rites, superstitions, magic and miracles. Someone tells Agata that up north, in the mountains, there’s a sanctuary where children can be brought back to life, for the space of a breath, in order to be baptised. Agata wants to give her little creature a name and grant her an identity. After a brief discussion with her indifferent husband (Denis Corbatto), the young woman hides the small body in a wooden box and leaves her fishing village with her bundle over her shoulder, heading towards an unknown destination.

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With her lens fixed on the face of her protagonist Celeste Cescutti, the director accompanies her on a hushed journey across unspoiled lands inhabited by pre-industrial societies; people of few words who repeat the same daily routine steeped in poverty and hunger. Over the course of her journey – from the lagoons of Caorle and Bibione to the Carnic and Tarvisio mountains – Agata clambers onto a peasants’ wagon which ends up being lured into a trap by a woman (Giacomina Dereani) and set upon by a gang of robbers. But Agata is saved by a strange boy known as Lince, played by Quadri undine (who played the lead in Carlo Lavagna’s remarkable first work Arianna [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Carlo Lavagna
film profile
]
, which saw her playing a young, intersex person), in transvestite. Agata has never seen snow and Lince has never seen the sea. The boy offers to accompany her in exchange for the contents of the box, and their initial uneasiness soon gives way to friendship. But the journey isn’t over yet, they need to cross a coal mine followed by a mountain lake before reaching the hermit (Anna Pia Bernardis) who can perform the miracle in question. “If you don’t have a name, you don’t exist”, whispers Agata, who has been disowned by her parents for cross-dressing and who no longer has a name to speak of.

Shot in Friulian and the Venetian dialect, and thus requiring subtitles, the film boasts the stylistic rigour of the type of arthouse film you see on the festival circuit, but the female characters who quietly rebel against a culture which would reduce them to dutiful and submissive workers with a clear gender identity, endow the film with a modern theme. The screenwriters, Elisa Dondi, Marco Borromei and the director herself, took as their starting point the discovery that, until the end of the 19th century, these sanctuaries which granted babies one last breath really did exist all over the Alps, including in France which was home to almost two hundred of them, and used it to tell a modest story about nurturing a type of hope which transcends the line between life and death.

Small Body is a co-production by Nefertiti Film, RAI Cinema, Tomsa Film and Vertigo. The film is distributed worldwide by Alpha Violet.

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(Translated from Italian)

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Review: Small Body – Cineuropa