The Catholic Church is no longer the “protagonist” of the cold Calabrian city where Corpo Celeste is set, its parish priest at one point laments; the film is very good with the way in which life can feel naggingly oblique, observing how the banality of faith, in practice, frustrates its own part-time protagonists.
Young Marta (Yle Vianello), an interior, late-blooming thirteen-year-old with fair hair and reddish cheeks, is back in Italy to live among her extended family, along with her factory-worker mother, her younger sister, who likes church events because she gets to wear her purple velvet dress and dance, and her older sister, who understands maturity as bossiness and emotional make-work with her boyfriend—why they left their previous home, in Switzerland, is never quite established, but it may have something to do with why her youngish mom always seems so tired. Marta spends a lot of her time on the roof, staring down at the city and at the kids her own age who scrounge garbage; she follows horrified as the church’s tracksuited factotum rides down to the canal to drown a litter of kittens she finds in a closet. If this is a crisis of faith, it’s a realistic one—one that Marta doesn’t even recognize as such.
In confirmation class, Marta looks up in awe at one tall, poised classmate, who teacher Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia) calls on whenever she’s too frustrated with her uncomprehending, phone-diddling charges, who giggle at her when she trips in the pews, and mull uncomprehendingly her Sunday-school prompts. Huffing and pious, Santa idolizes the priest, Don Mario, though his cellphone is always going off at services and he wants desperately to move to a bigger parish—he’s sucking up to the wheezy, hollow-faced bishop, scavenging up votes for his preferred candidate in the upcoming local elections.
Rohrwacher has a great feel for kitschy, lower-middle-class interior decorations (stuffy couches, shiny wallpaper) and the search for grace manifests, in Corpo Celeste, as something palpably meager—the church’s cross is a plug-in neon sign mounted on an off-white plaster wall, and the confirmation class breaks out their wettest-look hair gel for the special day. The most suspenseful scene in the movie comes when Don Mario wanders into class, looking for the handyman, and can’t turn down Santa when she asks if he’d like to hear the kids practice their confirmation song. So the kids stop rolling their eyes long enough to sing “I’m in tune with God/That’s the right frequency” along with Santa’s boom box, and Don Mario doesn’t pull out his cellphone for a whole verse—the most you can hope for from religion isn’t inspiration, but relief at disappointment momentarily deferred.
All this disappointment is phrased rather too explicitly in the film’s final act, when Marta meets a violently embittered old priest who finally translates “eli eli lema sabachthani” for her (she’s also just had her first period). Rohrwacher brings everything aggressively to the fore—alone in a classroom in her confirmation dress, Marta walks out of the church just as Don Mario is tiredly affirming that “our children mature”—but she earns points back for the decisive cynicism of the last shot’s “miracle,” and for using an actual crucifix as the metaphorical cross Marta is asked to bear—the literalness is, in the context of the international festival film’s tastefully understated intentions, actually rather invigorating.