‘Corpo Celeste’ sparks conversation about the church and its place in society today

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Marta takes in the view from her rooftop.

A 13-year-old girl struggles to find her place in society after moving back to Italy with her mother and older sister. Soon, she finds herself wrestling with the tumultuous growing pains of youth while trying to make sense of the Catholic church and her place in it. Alice Rohrwacher invites us to look—alongside her heroine— at a society from the outside and observe the ways in which religion permeates a people. (RMM: 3.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan

In the darkness of night, women sing a religious song as the people of an Italian town make a pilgrimage to a bridge where a holy procession will take place. The following morning, they eagerly await a speech from their priest, “Don Mario” (Salvatore Cantalupo), who enlists the help of church committee member “Santa” (Pasqualina Scuncia) to help him set up the microphone. In the crowd are 13-year-old “Marta” (Yle Vianello), her mother “Rita” (Anita Caprioli), and her older sister “Rosa” (Maria Luisa De Crescenzo). Having grown up in Switzerland, where her family has been living for the past ten years, Marta feels like an outsider in her own country. 

From the very beginning of Corpo Celeste (2011), director Alice Rohrwacher makes us feel uncomfortable. Through Marta, we think that we are intruding on some sacred practice in which we will never belong. At least, that’s how I feel. Though my family was a part of our local Armenian apostolic church, we only attended service on Easter. By the age of 13, when I was deemed too old for the church Easter egg hunt, I stopped going entirely. As an agnostic young adult, I struggle to understand religion as both a belief system and an institution. Marta and I have that in common. When she enters catechism class for the first time, I feel her anxiety. The classroom projector light plays off the students’ faces, further cementing a semi sinister atmosphere heightened by the church’s glowing neon cross.  

Catechism classes are led by Santa, who must prepare the students for their Confirmation ceremony. Though her heart may be in the right place – she loves both God and her church – Santa almost scares me in the way she teaches. When Marta is unsure of the answer to a question about the Bible, Santa is kind and encouraging. When Marta answers incorrectly, she immediately looks away in disappointment and upbraids her with condescension. According to Santa, “it is through the Holy Ghost that you must see the world.” I cannot help but feel uneasy at such rhetoric, as it phrases the Catholic faith as the one and only correct way to live one’s life. Children are impressionable, and it is all too easy to indoctrinate them to a certain ideology. 

But Marta cannot seem to accept this ideology, or she is still unsure about it, which the church seems to dislike. As an institution, it holds a great deal of power in this town; Throughout the film, we see various signs and posters for a political candidate that the church not only endorses but pushes onto the public. When Don Mario pays a visit to Marta’s home to collect rent, he slides a piece of paper across the table to Rita, saying, “this is the candidate to vote for.” In order to stay in the good graces of her landlord priest, she will likely follow his gentle order.

Marta and the other students participate in a church activity before the neon cross.

For all the power it wields, the church’s hold on this town – and the world – is slipping. At a committee meeting, one member laments that the children don’t maintain church attendance after Confirmation. Apparently, there aren’t as many youths as there once were whose minds can be molded by the church. Another member declares that “the church must become the protagonist again,” meaning that it must be the most central, most important aspect of every Christian’s life. But we know that this will likely never happen. As the world changes, the church must change with it, or it risks getting left behind. 

Santa tells her students that “Jesus’ body is different from ours.” It is holy. But Marta is more preoccupied with her own young body, changing before her eyes. As she memorizes a prayer, she examines this body in the bathroom mirror, perhaps wondering why it looks the way it does. Later, she will similarly examine an old crucifix, running her hands across the emaciated body of Jesus, perhaps again wondering why it looks the way it does.

Though its title suggests a theme of heavenly beauty and grace, Corpo Celeste offers us a grittier, more realistic portrait of religion and the town it rules. The American idea of Italy abounds in pristine waters, romantic villas, and fruitful vineyards. This image excludes much of Italy and Italian society. And while this film certainly does not represent the lives of every Italian, it does add a different perspective to a narrative saturated with the picturesque, the tourist’s idea of Italy. Marta does not live in a villa by the sea. She lives in a town with a highway and an overpass packed with litter. 

Corpo Celeste demonstrates a dynamic dichotomy of God’s grace and human cruelty. In class, Santa tells, with wonder, of how Jesus could cure the blind with only his saliva and his two hands. According to Christianity, we should love every living creature and help those in need. But when Santa finds Marta and the other students playing with a box of kittens, she recoils in disgust. She puts them in a plastic bag, then hands them off to committee member “Ignazio” (Carmelo Giordano). On the highway, he slams the bag against the pavement before throwing it over a bridge. Can those who exhibit such brutality truly call themselves devout followers of God?

Whether you are religious or not, Corpo Celeste is worth a watch for the questions it brings up about religion as both a faith and an institution. 

© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/16/20) FF2 Media

Santa tells her students a story from the Bible. 

Featured Photo: Marta walks blindfolded around the church.

Photo Credits: Simona Pampallona

Q: Does Corpo Celeste pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Yes.

Marta and her mother discuss the catechism of the Catholic church, among other things unrelated to men. 

Tags: Alice Rohrwacher, Corpo Celeste, FF2 Media, Roza Melkumyan, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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