A startling debut film by writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, Corpo Celeste is a deeply insightful and compassionate chronicle of the adolescent Marta’s difficulties at home, at church, and with finding her place in the world. Since returning from Switzerland with her family to southern Italy after 10 years away, Marta, now almost 13, often steals away to the rooftop of her family’s concrete high-rise to look out across the trash strewn city of Reggio Calabria that feels strangely alien to her despite being her birthplace.
The catalyst for Marta’s feelings of loneliness and puzzlement is her preparation for the Catholic sacrament of confirmation, which is a serious rite of passage for any teenager. As she attends the ongoing catechism classes, she questions the contradictions of her teacher and the hypocrisy among the adults in her life, whether it’s her single mother, 18-year-old sister, or the local status-seeking priest.
Through a series of impressively understated scenes, Rohrwacher savvily and humorously presents Marta and her troubles without condescension. When her catechism teacher, during one of her many by-the-book class exercises, slips and falls to the floor, Marta cannot stop giggling; the teacher responds by slapping her, ostensibly as part of a prayer recitation but really as a form of discipline. Later, when Marta accompanies Don Mario (Salvatore Cantaloupo), the priest, on an excursion to an abandoned village to take away a human-size crucifix for his church’s confirmation ceremony, she has her first menstrual period, which embarrasses her; she knows she cannot confine this in the priest.
On the big day, as Marta awaits becoming confirmed in her beautiful white dress—she had cut her long hair off earlier on a rebellious whim—she runs off, leaving her family and fellow classmates in the lurch. She ends up walking on the local beach and meets a boy who shows her some sort of sea creature and what he calls a “miracle”: it’s there that Rohrwacher ends her film, and it’s at that moment that we realize that Marta—whom we’ve watched turn into a selfless, intelligent, and inquisitive young woman—is the “celestial body” of the title whose maturity beyond her years might well put her on the road to sainthood.
The director is blessed with a stunning newcomer, Yle Vianello, whose marvelously forthright and guileless performance provides Marta with a quiet eloquence that speaks volumes. Rohrwacher has created a serious comedy that truthfully explores the life of a teenager in ways far removed from the sentimentality and cheap laughs of movie and TV screens in America.