“Misfortune departs, grace comes in,” says a villager, as she takes a knife to a Kaffan-leaden woman’s hand. In brightly-lit, glossy handheld, Agata (Celeste Cescutti) walks into the sea while dripping blood, a pre-birthing ritual performed in front of her village’s female co-habitants. In Small Body (Piccolo corpo), first-time fiction feature director Laura Samani doesn’t achieve much of anything, presenting a handsome but ceaselessly drab period piece. Out of this opening moment of purity and water comes a scene of pain and fire, as Agata suffers through a difficult birth. The time is 1900, and the place is Italy, but it’s a past so far removed from our conception of reality that this may as well be a fantasy epic.
Agata endures this, but the result is a stillbirth, meaning her baby is stuck in limbo. She hears that a nearby mountain can bring the infant back for a single breath, during which it can be quickly baptized and its soul saved. She sets off with the baby’s body in a rucksack-like box, and on her journey encounters bandits, sinister forces turning the land into industry, and a potential meeting with God Himself. The film possesses the proportions of a Western, but none of the tone. Instead, handheld digital captures the bucolic surroundings and textures of Agata’s journey. Soon, she meets up with Lynx (Ondina Quadri, who is known for androgynous performances), a young boy with some of the most piercing and watery eyes you’ll find in a film this year, who accompanies Agata on her tortuous journey.
This adventure setup has all the ingredients of a high-end romp, but Samani often stifles the characters in order to keep their motivations suppressed. She relies on the film’s vivid locations to shape the viewer’s mood, but as a result, the film begins to feel unmoored. Instead, she allows attention to drift to Agata’s shell-shaped hair bun, which is framed as if in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or else to another shot of an open window that blatantly alludes to L’Avventura. Something must be wrong if we’re playing count the basic art-cinema allusion game, instead of finding anything unique in Samani’s approach to telling this story.
Eventually, the viewer is guided to another traumatic ritual that brings Agata’s character full circle. But at under 90 minutes, Small Body is too brief to really explore its aquatic, rocky, and snowbound environments, and seems disinclined to engage with the questions of gender and technology that its scenario manifests. This grim fairytale is a perfectly well-mounted watch, but it’s likely only to suspend viewers in cinematic limbo.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.