Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NYFF 2011: Corpo Celeste (2011)

Corpus Celeste is DOA.

I suspect I'm going to get hate mail for that but this is a film that, assuming you just see it and you don't read anything on it, will make you wonder what in the world anyone saw it in. (And hold that thought I'll come back to it.)

The plot of the film centers around 13 year old Marta who has just moved back to Italy from Switzerland with her mom and older sister. She is at that age where most Catholic kids will make their Confirmation. So we watch as she goes to her religion class and tries to navigate around her family. We also follow Father Mario, the parish priest on the make. He's trying to advance himself by helping certain political candidates, as well as essentially stealing a huge cross from an "abandoned" church in the country. In theory how these two characters and the people around them maneuver drives the story.

If you go into the film blind, with no detailed press notes odds are you're going to be like me and be bored to tears.

Not a whole hell of a lot happens in the first hour as Marta goes to religion class, tries to deal with her mom and sister, and watches some scavengers out the window.

Then about an hour in Marta finds some nearly new born cats (the mother of which was tossed from the church earlier in the film) and they are taken away by Santa, the woman teaching the religion class.Santa gives the cats, which she has put into a plastic bag to the handyman to get rid of. Marta follows the man who takes the cats, and she and we watch as they are bashed on the sidewalk and then tossed in some water (I'm not too sure on details since I was kind of sick at the pointlessness of the sequence- even if the cats weren't really killed in real life).

Marta staggers off as a result of this experience and eventually meets up with Father Mario on a highway, who stops his car when he passes her on the way to pick up the cross. Along the way Father Mario shills for some politicians and Marta gets her period.

The film then staggers on for a bit before the film stops dead and the credits roll. (Seriously, the film just stops on the verge of something)

As I wandered out of the film and on to the train home I couldn't help but wonder what an utterly pointless film it all was. Any points it was making about hypocrisy and faith, growing up, the cruelty of life and questing were obvious and old hat. I couldn't figure out where the glowing reviews from places like Variety were coming from. (Variety spoke of big pays offs and I saw none especially since I thought the film was largely flatlined.)

After I got on the train and I headed home I started to read the press notes. I then started to understand what the film was all about and what director Alice Rohrwacher was going for... and I had a flashback to White White World from Tribeca. For those who don't remember White White World was this two hour time suck that was perfectly awful until you read the press book which explained everything that was going on. I mean everything, the film vastly improved, until you realized that NONE of what was in the press notes was in the film.

Corpo Celeste is a better film but it's also the same; Its a great film if you read the press notes. If you don't its a pretty much pointless film because most of what the director was going for never left the page or her head and made it to the screen.

AT this point I could tell you whats in the press notes but I'm not. I know that may seem not fair, but to tell you is actually unfair. To tell you everything that the director should have shown you is wrong. Films must exist unto themselves. Yes, some films need you to bring something to them, experience, and understand of historic events, you have to bring life and experience with you to the theater not be handed six pages of notes on the way in. You should be able to walk into a film cold and know whats going on, you shouldn't need a cheat sheet to explain what the director and writer failed to do. If a film can't stand on it's own (sequels excluded) then something is really really wrong with it. Tell me the story on film. Make your points on film, if you can't do that get another profession.

Forgive me, this anger isn't completely directed at Alice Rohrwacher the director of Corpo Celeste, rather its at people writing the film up as a masterpiece, since I know they read the notes and had more information than was on the screen, which means the film isn't that good.

Truth be told on a technical level Rohrwacher has made a great looking film. It's a beautiful film, with great images. It also has one of the best performances in any film this year thanks to Yle Vianello as Marta. I should be singing the praises of a young actress who is hopefully going on to big things. Instead I'm stuck talking about a dull film, where cats are killed in order to make the audience wake up or sit up, and which only makes sense if you have the secret code key. That's not what filmmaking is all about.

(In all seriousness I would welcome comments from anyone who sees the film cold- no reading up on it- please tell me what you think of the film since I and the two other people I spoke to immediately following the screening were completely at a loss... And because a week since I saw the film all I remember is the damn dead cats.)


  1. I just watched this movie today. Thanks for the tips regarding having to read the press notes, I'll look it up after posting this comment.

    I also thought that the director should have made things more clear. The problem with this film is that the intent of the movie is not evident to the viewer and we are left guessing as to what its message and intentions are. That said, here's my best attempt at an interpretation:

    The main idea revolves around the perceived infallibility of the catholic church and the influence it has on certain societies that are dominated by it. Its teachings are accepted as fact, its holy men and catechism teachers are not to be questioned.

    But the reality exists - holy men turn out to be error-prone, corruptible human beings. The church turns out to be merely an organization protecting its own interests. Reality is messier than what is taught in catechism classes (as pointed out by the older priest near the end of the movie.)

    The message is anti-authoritarian. We are encouraged to think for ourselves and make our own decisions rather than leaving our lives in the hands of a fallible organization.

    Anyway, that's my take, and I am much confused by the movie also. I particularly didn't understand why the main priest stopped the car in the middle of the road (causing the crucifix to be lost) and what is the meaning of the abrupt ending. Maybe after reading the press notes, I will understand it more. I still think it was a movie worth watching because it made me think.

  2. I walked into the film cold, and immediately liked the film and it's techniques. It does referenced a number of other films (the Satantango-like scene of the girl walking away from the camera while leaves blew around her, the cross and Songs from the Second Floor, a bit of Ordet and The Wall in there too, e.g.) that dealt with similar ideas - so perhaps it expects a healthy level of cinematic literacy. But the scenes where the girl is watching the raggle-taggle group of boys on the beach and their makeshift living room do provide a hint of what is going on. The climax of the film is twofold - when the Cardinal's assistant asks the communion teacher "who are you to the holy church?" and the demise of the cross - both exemplifying how the arrogance of the church, and its own idolatry, have become its undoing. The youth will look for spiritual enlightenment elsewhere, among the rabble. That's a little too simplistic a description, but along those lines.

    I was raised Catholic, here in Canada, and it was like that for me too. The church's ability to connect with the deep, visceral life of the people had come to an end. All that was left was ritual and empty symbolic.