Tuscan-born filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher makes her feature debut with CORPO CELESTE. The heart-warming tale of 13-year-old Marta, returning to her southern Italian hometown after growing up in Switzerland, CORPO CELESTE is a modern coming-of-age story set in the fractured communities of contemporary Italy. As Marta struggles with the challenges of growing up, she comes to question the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the role of faith in her young life. Premiering at the 2011 Quinzaine des Realisateurs in Cannes, CORPO CELESTE marks the emergence of an exciting new Italian director in Alice Rohrwacher.
We come to realise that it’s not just Marta but all the characters in CORPO CELESTE who are lost in their doctrine. Was that crisis of faith a jumping-off point for the film?
I didn’t start with the idea of this feeling of being lost, but it’s something that built up as I was doing research. I found it in the community that I was researching. It started with Marta – I wanted her to feel lost, and the research stemmed from that character. When it comes to the wider community, I realised that feeling was everywhere. I wasn’t looking for it, but it was just inherent in the community.
Does Marta’s feeling spring from watching the adults in her life fail to grasp those questions of faith themselves?
Yes, the adults in the movie have answers to the questions, but they don’t come from a proper knowledge of religion. It’s just a surface. They have readymade answers but they don’t spring from a place of understanding. They’re all looking for something to stick with in order not to think about what real life means. Their faith is just an excuse, and the answers don’t spring from questions that they’ve thought about.
Is that something that’s particularly common in modern Italy, do you think?
In Italy nowadays, there’s a feeling that people don’t ask themselves questions, and the idea of community is not there anymore. While people from abroad might imagine Italy as a big community where people know each other, that sense of community used to be there but it’s not anymore. The Church doesn’t think about faith. The main concern of the Church is to organise peoples’ lives. They don’t care about the teachings of the bible; it’s more like an organisation.
Salvatore Cantalupo’s priest embodies that idea in the film – he’s more concerned with his own career than his congregation – where did that character come from?
This character is inspired by real observation of the general situation with priests. There’s no particular character I was inspired by, but I found a lot of priests who were more-or-less just like that. Very often, priests in Italy are victims of the situation of the Church and they care more about power and how to get more of it, rather than the teachings of faith. The only thing they’ve got left is to grow in the Church and get more powerful. That was the idea with his character.
The film is set in Reggio Calabria, and the city the film takes place in is a terribly scarred, dirty place. What does it represent about Italy today?
I found Reggio Calabria while I was shooting a documentary there, right where the kids are collecting the rubbish in the movie. I liked the place and I decided to shoot CORPO CELESTE in the region. I liked the fact that the city expressed the contradiction all over Italy – this beautiful natural landscape, which is being destroyed by the people obsessed with modernisation. The city expresses what’s going on in Italy.
Does the abandoned village we visit at the end of the film represent a view of Italy’s past – a time when that sense of community still existed?
There’s no overt symbolic intention, but it’s an observation of reality, and the symbolism stems from that. That little village is real, and there are many abandoned villages like it all over Italy. It was a place that people ran away from, not because there was a war or an earthquake or anything, but just because there was nothing there. There weren’t even any shops to go to. It’s not a picturesque abandoned town – it was abandoned harshly, by the changing times.
Does the village hold answers for Marta?
It doesn’t give her answers, but I think it opens new questions for Marta. She gets in contact with the idea that religion is not something that far from Earth. It’s something real, and religion is actually more of Earth than it is celestial. That’s the meaning of the title of the movie, CORPO CELESTE gives you the idea of something far away – spiritual and untouchable - but actually the celestial body, the corpo celeste, can at the same time be Earth itself, floating in space.
How did you find Yile Vianello, the young actress playing Marta?
It took a very long time to find Marta. I started looking in Reggio Calabria, but I couldn’t find anyone. I ended up finding Yile Vianello in a commune in the mountains very close to Tuscany, near Pistoia. The community has been there for thirty years, and they have no running water, but they’re entirely self-sufficient. She’s never been to school, so when she first came to Reggio Calabria everything was new. She’d never been to the city before.
Was she able to engage with the ideas of the film?
She engaged easily with the material and with me. We got on really well, and she’s a very generous kid. Even though the situation of the character was different from her own, the feeling was actually really close. The feeling she gave to the character was just what I was looking for. It was easy for her to engage.
Do you think the film has changed her?
Having lived in the mountains her entire life, I think moving around with the cast and crew opened up Yile’s world a little. She was very excited during filming because it introduced her to things she hadn’t experienced before. And after the shoot, when we were recording ADR, we all had to wait while the production manager tried to coax her out of the hotel swimming pool – she’d never actually been in a pool before...
Who are the filmmakers who have influenced you?
It’s a mixed bag. I love Rossellini, Cassavetes, Lee Chang-dong and Claire Denis. I love Matteo Garrone, who directed GOMMORAH. A real mixed bag!
You worked with the brilliant cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who recently worked with Wim Wenders on PINA – what was your relationship with her, and how did you define the look of the film together?
We got on really well. She’s got incredible experience working with directors like Dominique Cabrera, Christophe Honoré and Agnès Varda, and she really listened. She’s one of those people who don’t push too much, and we both approached things in a simple way. That’s what makes the film look great; we both listened to each other. In her I found a cinematographer to go on working with.
In the end, the message of the film is quite a hopeful one.
It is a hopeful ending. Yes, the end of the film is like a new beginning, and when you have a new beginning, of course you’re full of hope for the future.
What of your future – do you have a new project in mind?
Yes, I’m already writing something else at the moment. I can’t say too much, but I’m hard at work and excited to make my next feature!