REVIEW: Corpo Celeste

26 10 2015

Corpo CelesteThere’s an odd feeling when you watch a filmmaker’s work in reverse, starting with their most well-known project and regressing back to their origins.  Perhaps you can see the roots of their latest film in their beginnings, or maybe you can even see the leaps and bounds they make as a filmmaker. If the work is not perfect, you also cannot help but wonder, “Would I have recognized this director as a talent to watch?”

All these things swirled in my head when viewing Alice Rohrwacher’s “Corpo Celeste,” her 2012 debut that preceded her Cannes Grand Prix winner “The Wonders.”  I saw her latest at the New York Film Festival in 2014 and attended a screening where she participated in a Q&A.  When asked at the close what advice she had for aspiring filmmakers, the Italian writer/director had a simple maxim: “Do good movies!”

But is that what she makes?  In a word, yes.  Perfect though they are not, interesting and compelling they most certainly are.

Rohrwacher’s film follows Marta, a teenage girl in a small Italian village, as she undergoes the ritual of confirmation.  The process proves rather eye-opening for her as she peers into the corrupt, patriarchal Catholic Church that dominates her community with a rather iron fist. While “Corpo Celeste” does paint the church in an unflattering light – they are mean to baby kittens, for heaven’s sake! – it is ultimately the kind of movie that makes the case that we should care put our faith confidently in people, not blindly in authority.

The journey is harrowing, but Rohrwacher grants us scant access to Marta’s headspace through all the tribulations. The camera mostly gazes at her, never really opening up a window into her psyche. When we want to feel, we’re mostly left to watch. Still, “Corpo Celeste” does lay the groundwork for this filmmaker to make the more powerful “The Wonders,” so the film does serve a great purpose for Rohrwacher. It just serves its audience slightly less. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Wonders

3 01 2015

The WondersNew York Film Festival, 2014

Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders” is a tender film of quiet power, offering full satisfaction on a relatively modest scale.  Maria Alexandra Lungu plays Gelsomina, the eldest of four children in a rural Italian beekeeping family.  Her corner-cutting father sets a tone of putting their financial stability above all else, even sacrificing physical well-being in order to protect their honey.

Trying to better their quality of life, Gelsomina submits her family’s farm to compete on the reality show “Countryside Wonders,” which puts pastoral communities on display for the whole nation.  (For those who might not know too much about contemporary Italian culture, watch Matteo Garrone’s savage satire “Reality” to see just how firmly entrenched reality TV is in their collective psyche.)  Her proposal meets vehement opposition from the stern patriarch, who would rather take in a German juvenile delinquent to rescue them from dire straits.

Even with her small amount of power in the family, Gelsomina does her best to make responsible moves on their behalf.  This does require a kind of hardening into adulthood, making the film a bitter coming-of-age tale.  “The Wonders” is as much about innocence lost as it as about maturity gained, placing it in good company with films like “Hide Your Smiling Faces.”

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