This year’s edition of Cannes International Critics’ Week has a competitive selection comprised only of first feature films; among these, Piccolo corpo (Small Body) certainly does not look like the work of a beginner. Laura Samani masters every aspect of filmmaking needed to craft a visceral and vivid journey for the audience out of the adventure of her main character. Agata is a young woman living in a fishing community by the Adriatic Sea, in the year 1900. When she gives birth to a stillborn girl, she cannot cope with the fact that in Christian custom baptism is out of the question for her baby, thus condemning her soul to wander forever in limbo. She decides to leave on her own, taking only her dead child with her, in search of a faraway sanctuary someone told her about. There the miracle Agata needs might happen: stillborn babies are said to be brought back to life for the space of one breath, enough to baptize them.
Fixated on her purpose, Agata follows in the footsteps of the protagonist of Rosetta, which gave the Dardennes their first Palme d’Or back in 1999 and became a model for female characters in the years since. Like Rosetta, Agata is an unflinching young woman, steadily making her way through an unforgiving world, made even more brutal by the rules enforced by men and endured by women. In Piccolo corpo the two genders seem to live apart from each other rather than sharing the same space, both physically and socially. Nothing but restrictions and rejections ever comes down from men to women over the course of the movie. Solidarity and empathy are only shown among women – and the more the story advances, the more this rift between genders widens, to a symbolic extent in the final act where men overtly provoke death while women give life.
Laura Samani creates a powerful contrast between how down-to-earth Agata’s quest is, in its trials and actions, and the phantasmagoric quality of the world it takes place in. Every visual and musical choice made in Piccolo corpo contributes to having the movie feel, on a sensory level, like a fairytale. The landscapes, starting in the Adriatic lacuna and ending in the Dolomites covered in deep snow (with dense forests and maze-like caverns along the way), are breathtaking to the point of feeling unreal – and the way Agata moves from one location to another, completely different, through sudden ellipses as if by magic, intensifies this sensation. It is not just about finding shooting locations, it is also about how you use them, and Samani sure knows how. The frames, the cinematography, the sound mixing are all compelling. As are the lead actresses, Celeste Cescutti (Agata) and Ondina Quadri (who plays Lynx, Agata’s travel companion during part of her journey), through their strong performances, their androgynous features and their incredibly expressive eyes, full of determination and ambiguity.