In “Corpo Celeste,” the heavens revolve around an unlikely heroine, an almost-13-year-old girl who feels like an outsider in every sphere of her life — at home, at church, in the southern Italian city that she has returned to after growing up in Switzerland.
She is right on the verge of life's greatest changes: spiritual awakening, the growing awareness of sexuality and the sobering realization that grownups don't have everything all figured out either.
Ringtones for Jesus
In the small apartment that she, her older sister and her mother share with relatives, Marta gravitates to the womblike security of the bathroom to contemplate the changing person in the mirror — that is, of course, until big sister needs to get in. Mom, who is well meaning but hopelessly passive, isn't very good at mediating the sibling rivalry.
Marta also attracts disapproval in her confirmation classes down at the church, where she has trouble memorizing the tongue-twisting passages for the upcoming ritual. Santa, the church volunteer, is generally pleasant and patient in her teaching but always seems to be just a couple degrees from boiling over.
Apparently Santa is preoccupied with the prospect that Father Mario will be leaving the parish soon. On his part, he doesn't have much attention to spare for his flock, with all the time he spends campaigning for church-friendly local politicians and maneuvering for a transfer to a “more important” congregation. Sometimes his ringtone can even be heard during Mass.
Down from the cross
Nothing will smooth the father's transition to greater heights (and bishophood?) than replacing the abstract neon cross (it's out of place against the battered plaster anyway) with the realistic “figurative” crucifix from his childhood village, now-abandoned, which is tucked away in the nearby hills. And what better opportunity than the upcoming confirmation festival, with the bishop presiding?
If only the father could control the unruly behavior of those pesky children (especially that inquisitive Marta) and the unpredictable reactions of the frustrated Santa. After a confrontation between the two, the father will be surprised to spot Marta walking along the highway far from the parish.
Should he turn around and drive her back home, or just take her along on the salvage mission to his hometown? The consequences of his decision will be as picturesque as it is dramatic.
A divine comedy
This fairly simple story is told against a narrative texture with proliferating levels of meaning. First there are the many transformations that Marta is undergoing at this moment in her life. There also is the parallel between her trajectory and that of Father Mario. And then there are the multiple references in the film's title.
In fact, the viewer is left with the feeling that every detail, every line of dialogue has a whole cluster of symbolic meanings — commenting on the successive phases of human life, on the social reality of a specific location, on the quest for meaning in a harsh world, perhaps even on the bureaucracies of organized religion.
Take for example the opening scene of a religious pilgrimage, set between a busy highway and a garbage dump, or the tender moment between Marta and the life-sized wooden crucifix.
The desaturated film stock and ever-moving handheld camerawork recall the style of an earlier generation of Italian filmmakers and fit nicely with the economic and political neglect of this peripheral region in Italy. The stark cityscapes with their litter and bare cinderblock buildings are in the finest tradition of contemporary neorealism.
Best of all, none of this artistry is shoved in our faces, as we are so painfully accustomed to with the standard assembly-line fare. As one reviewer puts it, this movie's “big payoffs arrive in a couple of small, understated moments of grace.”