Laura Samani’s hauntingly beautiful Piccolo Corpo is a triumph. This is a voyage of uncompromising love and sacrifice, utterly unmissable with enduring and memorable performances from Celeste Cescutti and Ondina Quadri.
Young Agata’s baby is stillborn and so condemned to Limbo. Agata hears about a place in the mountains where infants can be brought back to life for just one breath, to baptise them. She undertakes a voyage with her daughter’s small body hidden in a box and meets Lynx, a solitary boy who offers to help her. They set off on an adventure that will enable both to come close to a miracle that seems impossible.
Agata’s refusal to accept that her child cannot be given the rights of anyone else who was born contradicts the thoughts and feelings of her community. Her husband has already dealt with the issue expectedly. Yet, she is torn to shreds at the thought that her baby will not get the respect it deserves in death. The fact that her community barely even let her grief rallies Agata’s mind to the decision to take her baby to the sanctuary.
Interestingly this is all true; there was indeed a sanctuary in the Alps that supposedly, was able to breathe life into a baby to allow it to be baptised and thus given a rightful Christian burial. Yet, in normal circumstances it was men who took their children there, not the woman, as it was thought that the journey would be too arduous for someone who has just given birth. Agata’s protest against such a move resonates heavily, you understand that she would want to do this, especially so considering the lack of effort and support from those around her. For nine months, she carried her daughter and religion be damned if she cannot do this for her. It is here, so early on that your heart breaks for this woman, her stunned silence to the death hits home far more than a grand emotional reaction. It feels far more authentic and this is something that despite the plot, continues on throughout the rest of the film.
Her sacrifice of everything she knows to take on this journey is as brave as they come, especially considering the time period. When her husband and others inform her that she will have other children and not to get caught up in her distress, it hits like a dagger to the heart. They do not have the same connection as she does, and with her just left to lie in bed, what else can she do? It is a powerful story and concept and one that grips you even with the sparse moments of dialogue.
Writers Marco Borromei, Elisa Dondi and Samani have a great deal of focus placed on what happens than what is said. However, when characters do speak, there is a purpose to it. For example, Agata and Lynx wander through a cave section during their journey, Agata comforts Lynx, who is panicking about their situation. She distracts with a story about the effects of drinking seawater, yet what she says has a double or even triple meaning. She isn’t only saying it for Lynx, but for herself as well, and it is one of several wonderfully written scenes. Moments like this in Piccolo Corpo are simple but oh so highly effective in its execution.
Celeste Cescutti and Ondina Quadri are exceptional here with Cescutti fill her performance with courage and honesty as she battles her way through the Italian landscape. She is full of love in the way that Quadri’s Lynx feels they can never be, here we have a character who has taken to living a dubious life and scratching on by without anyone to comfort them. However, in both of these very different characters, both actors are able to bring a different type of vulnerability to them that allows us to connect with the greatest of ease. Both performances, but especially Cescutti’s, will live long in the memory.
What also strikes me about Piccolo Corpo is the utter lack of a score or non-diegetic music throughout. Instead, a rare choir hmm sparing pops up throughout, which helps the haunting feeling of Agata’s mission, increasing in use as she gets close to her destination. With this sparing music from Fredrika Stahl, you would be forgiven that it is happening within the world of the film, such as the beauty and resonance of it. It compliments Laura Samani’s film wonderfully. Otherwise, we are given songs by the cast themselves, and it causes you to become hyper-aware of all of the sound design from Riccardo Spagnol. Every rustle of leaves in the woods, every scratch within the mountain caves, to the very snow crunching footsteps in the valley, is a film that is alive with its sound and is as key a piece to the fantastically crafted puzzle as any of the other parts.
Samani’s direction, coupled with Mitja Ličen direction of photography, gives us some stunning visuals of the ever-changing landscape throughout Agata and Lynx’s journey. The handheld nature of Piccolo Corpo has us feeling connected to the characters and their mission far better than any sweeping camera moves could give us. This isn’t an epic tale; even with some epic landscapes, this is an intimate and focused film as you will get, and the fact that no shot is wasted and each has characters within them hits you.
There is rarely a shot in the 89-minute runtime that does not have either Agata or Lynx in the frame, and by doing this, we always think the story is moving forward. Perhaps it is the sense that they are constantly moving forwards in the story that you feel worn down with them as they trudge their way from one location to another. Having the film shot in sequence certainly helps bring home the feeling of exhaustion for the two as they reach the finale.
Samani’s themes of rebirth within Piccolo Corpo do not just settle with Agata’s child. Still, with Agata and Lynx themselves, one must accept life to keep going and become stronger as an individual, and the other must find a form of rebirth from the closed-off and defensive person they have become.
She also presents the idea that not everything has to be black and white. Why can’t a woman take their child to the sanctuary? Why can’t Lynx find some form of happiness? Why can’t a baby once dead become alive so they can be welcomed by God? By offering up these questions and making sure that there are no true answers, Samani’s film leaves you as thoughtful as it does emotional drained.
Piccolo Corpo is an exceptional film and one that will catch you out. With this being Samani’s feature debut, we can only hope we see more of her soon, as well as her brilliant leading actors – a film that at times can be emotionally painful but very much worth it.
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