Small Body, 2021.
Directed by Laura Samani.
Starring Celeste Cescutti and Ondina Quadri.
Agata’s (Celeste Cescutti) pregnancy results in stillbirth, alienating her from family and community alike. Unwilling to accept that her daughter will be condemned to Limbo, she embarks on a cross-country journey to reach a chapel that can lay a stillborn’s soul to rest. Meeting wandering travellers along the way, Celeste’s determination and love for the unborn power her through dangerous situations.
Eternal damnation is a theme scarcely viewed in its naked entirety, yet Small Body takes on the challenge with a modern twist. A far cry from the typical period drama, its social leanings into continuing issues are exactly what makes it so difficult to watch. Hardly enjoyable viewing, the film’s haunting visual pull, sparse soundtracks and vulnerable commitment to the truth make it essential viewing.
Taken out of the 1900s Italian context, Agata is the everywoman. Shouldering the burden of traumatically painful pregnancy by herself, her wishes and concerns are continually ignored by those that surround her. Subconsciously viewed as blasphemous and nonsensical for her desire to name her baby, the visceral pains of motherhood are condemned by the view of children as passing practicality. Agata’s prolonged pain effortless translates into the vast surrounding landscape, the water acting as her only source of solace and purification. There’s an additional irony to the gender of the unborn child, denied breath in an environment autonomously controlled by men.
The religious folklore of being able to awaken a stillborn baby is Small Body’s uncomfortable underpinning. Through sparse actions and timeless visual motifs, audiences are challenged to look the problems of eternity straight in the eye. Raw and explicit in its grounding in nature, there’s no tangible answer for how to retain control in vulnerable moments. There doesn’t need to be—the need to manhandle Agata while subjecting her to psychological torment serves as a question that requires a solution. There’s no doubting her plight is worsened by the chokehold of religious ideology, yet the taking of tangible and emotional belongings remains universal.
While Agata is quietly decisive in choosing when to speak, the sound design echoes the film’s conservative stance for her. Moments of reflection by the water are serene—the audio focuses on the lapping of waves, calls of birds and the rustle of leaves on the woodland floor. When threats of forcible wet nurse work or egotistical taunting confront Agata, she has bread and butter reality to keep her stable. Transitioning from the never-ending horizons of the coast to the claustrophobic pits of the mining caverns, Agata’s journey to the mountains asks what anyone would be willing to risk when they have nothing to lose.
When the lull of communal singing isn’t foreboding the dark metaphors that Small Body holds, Agata’s interactions with passers-by are just as telling. The introduction of wandering traveller Lux (Ondina Quadri) ultimately leads to a confusing end to its narrative, tilting towards the overuse of underwater submerging as a visual motif. Seemingly quick to change allegiance to the greater power, Lux represents the superficial support in a woman’s world, primarily working in the interest of ego. Even so, if you love someone, set them free—and Lux is able to deliver for Agata in the end.
Perhaps there is no better way to highlight the strife of women in the present than to show how little difference there is to the past. The chilling depictions of a bloodied woman intimately baring her all is just one of the continued ways Small Body merges the problematic nature of both worlds. Not a film that will bring any form of comfort or enjoyment, its goal exists in education and searching for answers no society has been able to provide.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Jasmine Valentine – Follow me on Twitter.