With an impressive drama located exactly halfway between naturalism and magical realism so typical of Italian cinema, Laura Samani presented herself in the critics’ week of the festival in Cannes. This feature film debutant for “Piccolo corpo” or “Small Body” also earned the national award for the best new director, and this adventurous folk tale can also be seen as an interesting and finely thought-out parable. Samani places the story somewhere in the north-east of Italy, in a fishing village at the beginning of the 20th century, although the life of these people is not much different from the life of their ancestors a century, two or three earlier.
In the opening scene, we see such a young woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy, Agata (Celeste Cescutti), over whom other village women perform some kind of ritual to ensure her safe delivery. Unfortunately, that ritual was apparently not successful, or the guardian angels were dozing off at that very moment, because in the next scene Agatha gives birth to a stillborn baby girl. When the local priest tells her that her stillborn child is now condemned to eternal wandering in Limbo because it died before it was baptized, she is left completely devastated. The idea that a child who could not sin because, for God’s sake, had no time, must wander through some amorphous intermediate space between hell and heaven for all eternity, will completely horrify and terrify Agatha.
She is ready to do anything to change the afterlife fate of her unfortunate daughter, and she will set off on her way north when she hears that there is a priest in the mountains with special powers who can revive a dead child enough to baptize him and send his soul to heaven. On the same night that her child is buried, Agata will dig up a tiny coffin and set out on a dark journey to the north of Italy to find a miracle-working priest. “Piccolo Corpo” was an extremely layered, thoughtful film full of symbolism and another in a series of proofs that a quality story set in a historical period can be filmed with a minimal budget.
This folk tale brilliantly captures the spirit of the times, superstitions and ignorance among the average village folk who have been instilled from their youth with fear and the necessity to stick to what the local friar has taught them. For Agata, the journey to the north will turn into a kind of journey of redemption because she considers herself guilty of the child’s death, and regardless of the fact that she has probably never left the coastal village where she was born in her life, she will bravely embark on a journey into the unknown. It seems to me that Agata is almost a spiritual successor to the simple Bess in Emily Watson’s fantastic performance in Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves”, a God-fearing woman ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the soul of a child whom she neither met nor named.
Samani impressively used the natural environment and locations, which almost give the whole story a surreal, magical impression. The hand-held camera gives an additional naturalistic touch, and the young actress Celeste Cescutti is impressive in the role of Agatha, a young woman who completely unconsciously decides to rebel against the primitive tribal rules and do what she considers right. It is interesting how Samani, together with his screenwriting collaborators, came up with the idea for a film shot in the Friulian and Venetian dialects when they discovered that until the very end of the 19th century in those Alpine parts of Italy, there really were such bizarre sanctuaries that promised one breath for unborn children which would take them to heaven. Agatha’s path was followed by numerous women in reality, hoping that, if not in life, then at least in death, they would manage to save their unborn children.