There is an amazing film that is so powerful that watching it is one of those events you can’t get out of your mind hours or days after seeing it. The film, Piccolo Corpo (Little Body) by debut director Laura Samani is an almost virtuoso display of the all too human struggle of women in a desperately inhumane male dominated world.
The film is from 2021 but is just been released in the Netherlands with Dutch subtitles. I was hoping to sharpen my Italian by ignoring the subtitles and those hopes were dashed as the movie, though Italian, was spoken in Friulli-dialect that was largely unintelligible without the subtitles. The film is set in 1900 Northern Italy, starting in a small isolated island of fishermen.
The story follows a storyline when I read it it sank to the bottom of my list of films to see, which in itself tells you something about male privilege; but it was a stunning and riveting story. Agata, a young woman on an isolated fishing island, gives birth to a still born baby girl. And here are the two protagonists in the film: Agata and her child whom we almost only see symbolized in the wooden chest she had been buried in. Her priest informs her the child will spend eternity in Limbo because she was not baptized because the baby never breathed, an apparent requirement among Catholics at the time. Distraught, Agata wants above all her stillborn child to be saved from Limbo. The local priest refuses to do anything, her husband shrugs it off, “You’ll have other children.” Agata quietly exasperated by everyone’s lack of concern for her dead daughter becomes determined to do something. She hears of a certain priest in a northern valley in the mainland that can bring the baby back to life for a single breath so she can be baptized.
Agata finds where her baby had been buried. Digs out the small wooden chest where she is buried and takes it on the most heart wrenching journey in a show of incredible determination and power from such a young vulnerable woman, so beautifully and effectively played by Celeste Cescutti. The journey goes across a harsh uncaring landscape in a harsh lawless society. I decided to avoid spoiler alerts because I don’t want to deny anyone the experience of watching this film so I won’t go into the plot details, if you want you can find them here: https://cineuropa.org/en/newsdetail/407300/
For me, what I found so profound and breathtaking is the way this woman’s story is told against a backdrop of uncaring men incapable of understanding this woman’s plight. This is not achieved by male caricature or predictable acts of oppression, instead it is done with a light touch of their unimportance except in the creation of Agata’s struggle by their own willful ignorance of a woman’s point of view, thus making it all the more powerful and damning indictment. Instead of the men, it is the women in the film that rise to the occasion without whom Agata would never be able to go very far. And that is appropriate and real that the men cause the problems and the women are left to deal with it, and deal with it they do with an extraordinary, if almost completely muted, call to courage and community.
Placing this story in 1900 has, from this more social perspective, distilled the essence of an uncaring male-dominated society and how it fecklessly oppresses and takes advantage of women. But that is the background, though male supremacy attempts to force it to the foreground. The real story here is a story of incredible courage and determination in the face of society, church, nature, and faith (or integrity if you prefer). The film is shot with a sobriety that does not waste a shot, every image commenting on the immense struggle, the determination and the hope of our 2 main characters.
Despite all this praise the film is not perfect, no film is. I feel sometimes extended film cliches were a bit tiring but even those were applied with effect and challenging my patience was probably a worthy cause in itself. The above notwithstanding, Piccolo Corpo is a great film in every respect one that whomever may see it is not likely to forget.