The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that a child should not be taught about religion until he or she asks about it independently. Sadly, Rousseau’s wisdom has rarely been taken to heart and parents ship their bored children to go through the motions of religious rights of passages via part-time schooling. With a little effort, one could craft a captivating tale involving a bored priest and an ineffective teacher failing to instill faith in a young girl who wants religion in her life, or at least wants to understand it. Corpo Celeste takes a passing glance at that tale and then meanders about in an inept, self-important manner where simple points are turned into filler, characters fail to develop, and every “big” moment is ruined by clumsy, heavy-handed direction. Instead of thinking about faith, our minds can only ponder “Why was the premise for a short film turned into a bloated, dull-witted feature?”
Marta (Yle Vianello), having moved from Switzerland to Italy with her sister and mother, is enrolled in classes for her upcoming confirmation. At age 12, Marta is more concerned with her developing body than learning about God, which is good because her church is awful. Her priest (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a brazen careerist who is quicker to answer the call of his cell phone than the call of the Lord, and her confirmation teacher Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia) is enthusiastic about providing meaningless religious songs and lessons to her bored class. Then, without any catalyst or cause, Marta is suddenly interested in religion and depressed by the hypocrisy around her.
Corpo Celeste is built on the faulty premise that a character can desire something they don’t even comprehend. Marta doesn’t even have the tools to question her faith let alone be depressed that her sources of spiritual inspiration have nothing to offer. Furthermore, her spiritual awakening arises out of nothing. Almost half of the film is spent with Marta being more obsessed with her new boobs than Jesus. One moment she’s admiring how the dining room light plays off the wall, and the next moment she’s bummed that the priest is more interested in getting a local politician elected than introducing young people to God.
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher stumbles at every turn. She holds every shot for far too long and lends it no weight. Sure, Marta could stare at a boy in the distance for 10 seconds, but why not a whole minute? Why not make sure every shot takes six times longer than necessary? Almost every scene lacks energy and seems done with an eye towards filling a feature-length runtime rather than any dramatic motivation. Rohrwacher only breaks from this uninspired approach when it’s time for a heavy-handed moment to let the audience know that Marta just had a major revelation. Rarely, Rohrwavher will find a clever, well-executed scene like when Santa has her students wear blindfolds and walk around the church as some loose connection to how Jesus healed the blind.
But moments like this are few and far between, and it’s a shame because Corpo Celeste has a rich idea at its core: children cannot be forced into religion and adults cannot be religious in name only. Santa is more obsessed with the idea of having the structure and community of a church; she has no interest in exploring and embracing the religion it’s founded upon. Instead, she would rather have her students answer trivia questions about the Bible and sing songs about worshiping Jesus. The priest is far worse since he’s tasked with the spiritual salvation of his parish, and instead he’s uninterested in anyone’s life but his own. Rohrwacher had the opportunity to develop these characters, but they become more cartoonish and vapid as the film grinds on.
There are brief moments in Corpo Celeste where the film finds something interesting to say and an interesting way to say it. Then those moments quickly fade away and we’re left with a dull 12-year-old being disillusioned with a world she doesn’t even understand. The only time we can sympathize with Marta is when she’s being bored to death in class and waiting for something to touch her spirit.