The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema] - SMALL BODY | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema] - SMALL BODY

small body review
A young woman sets off on a journey to save her stillborn son's soul.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Laura Samani

Starring: Celeste Cescutti, Ondina Quadri

small body poster

Writer/director (with co-writing credits to Marco Borromei and Elisa Dondi) Laura Samani’s debut opens upon a windswept beach panorama, evocatively lit with the muted colour palette of a Dutch master. In a tribal formation women process the sand, with point being taken by teenage Agata (Celeste Cescutti). The women chant, and circle the pregnant Agata, eventually anointing her among the elemental signifiers of rushing water and piercing winds. The visually sumptuous opening is a chthonic display of folklore, superstition and female energy: a shorthand pledge of Small Body’s intents. When Agata returns to the huts and hovels of the late 19th century village, in a violent and protracted scene, she gives birth: the child is stillborn.

small body review

Speaking of superstitions, up until very recently the Catholic Church had a really mad one. The concept of Original Sin dictated that anyone who passed on unbaptised would end up in Limbo, which meant any child who died before baptism would be eternally doomed to be excluded from the full blessedness of the beatific vision. This is rural Italy, on the cusp of the modern era, and so belief in religious dogma is dominant, but at the same time, the old ways linger. Hearsay suggests a sanctuary, far away from the village, where children can be brought back to life for the space of one breath - enough to be baptised and sent on their way to heaven. Her husband is disinterested (this is a film where men are simply practical contributors within various matriarchies), and so Agata alone, still torn apart from the birth, packs her baby in a crate and sets off for the mountains to seek redemption.

small body review

What follows is a beautiful picaresque of rural Italy, of landscapes untouched by encroaching industry, with the celluloid embroidered by carefully curated period detail. In an imposing wide shot, we see our protagonist taken across grey waters in a Stygian tableau: this is going to be a voyage of life and death ramifications. Agata falls in with Lynx (played by trans actor Ondina Quadri), a beautiful boy who was born a girl, and who has been ostracised by his family for cross dressing (the explicitly contemporaneous aspects of this storyline are handled deftly, and never seem incongruous). Lynx has not seen the sea, while Agata has never seen snow - cute! Along the way, the two get into scrapes with a highway robber, and battle the elements, all the while dealing with the lingering abjections of Agata’s post birth body.

small body review

Small Body is ostensibly a film about determination, and female strength. Cescutti is a formidable, credible presence, and Agata is a character we root for throughout, with Quadri providing an effective foil to her closed stoicism. Aside from its worthy themes, however, the main draw for Small Body is its gorgeous mise-en-scene, and realisation of a spectacular and dangerous European past. The balance of visual pleasure and the exploration of ideas concerning gender in the film is lopsided, however. About those wonderful costumes... for a film which opens with a poetry of elements, and emphasises its characters’ relationships with nature throughout, the regalia is kept pristine for most of the running time - nary a speck of dirt to be seen. This is perhaps a telling metaphor for Small Body. While visually appealing, Samani’s film often skirts around the thematic concerns suggested by the film’s striking opening, offering an at times superficial experience.

Small Body is in UK cinemas from April 8th.

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