NYFF ’11 Review: The Catechism Cataclysm of “Corpo Celeste”

A distinctly apocalyptic pall hovers over the Main Slate of the 49th New York Film Fesitval. In The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr), a mysterious visitor repeatedly warns “The world has been debased…accept that there are neither gods nor god.” In 4:44 Last Day On Earth (Abel Ferrara), a character played by Willem Dafoe rather redundantly intones, “We’re all doomed.” “Life on Earth is evil,” adds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a film so stuffed with sublime tableaux that it rediscovers the worth of the world before destroying it.

The comparatively under-the-radar Corpo Celeste (“Heavenly Body”), the debut feature of director Alice Rohrwacher which premiered at Directors’ Fortnight, chooses beginnings over endings. The film follows Marta (Yle Vianello), a 13-year-old girl who has been uprooted after ten years in Switzerland to return to her hometown of Calabria, Italy, where she spends most of her time attending classes for the Catholic ritual of Confirmation. Blonde, isolated, and depressed, Marta could easily grow up to be the alienated Justine of Melancholia, but exists in a far less aesthetically pleasing world. Shot in washed out beiges and grays, her surroundings are dreary and riddled with urban decay. Even the Catholic faith is stripped of the charm and mystical allure it usually possesses in the movies, reduced to a vaguely Fascist-looking church run by a handful of petty, vindictive bureaucrats.

Marta’s peers are hulking adolescents who take communion with a bovine sense of duty. The struggle between good and evil is beside the point; here religion is nothing more than a series of empty words and gestures that have ceased to have any meaning for new generations. Even outside the bounds of Catholicism, Marta’s future looks cheerless; in press notes for Corpo Celeste, the director indicates that film is meant to ask “what it means to live in our time.” While a significant section of the films in the NYFF Main Slate address this question by imagining the apocalypse, Corpo Celeste traces a more illusive erosion, a profound loss of certainty and purpose – which may be even more terrifying.

Anna Bak-Kvapil is a film critic, filmmaker and actor. She contributes to the website Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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