Small Body


Reviewed by: Mateusz Tarwacki

Small Body
"It is impossible to deny the director's poetic and aesthetic talent, as well as her ability to offer a critical deconstruction of social relations through a seemingly simple story." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Critics Week

An old tradition, known as "the theory of Limbo", almost as old as Christianity itself, said that dead, unbaptised children were suspended between salvation and damnation, uncleansed of original sin, doomed to wander forever through Limbo. This tradition was softened in Catholicism only in the 21st century. Laura Samani goes back to the little-known history of Christianity, basing the plot of her Small Body on the existence of sanctuaries in which miracles were supposed to take place. Stillborn babies could be brought back to life for just one breath – enough time to baptise them.

The director begins her story with a tragedy that takes place somewhere at the turn of the 20th century. Agata (Celeste Cescutti), who lives in a fishing village on one of the Italian islands, gives birth to a stillborn child. Waking up after this misfortune, Agata asks about her firstborn daughter and is met with cold indifference. Even her husband does not show her a lot of warmth, simply saying, "We'll have other children". When a priest explains that her child is doomed to wander forever in Limbo, Agata decides to make a desperate, secret journey to the continent, where, as rumours go, there is a distant mountain place where a miracle can happen.

Small Body is a modest and quiet road movie which extends the exposition of its heroine to the length of the entire film. The presented world and the characters that Agata meets on her trip are only sketches – like ghosts met on the way to the abyss. Moreover, the desperate journey is not one separate "mythical" element. The figure of a guide, undefined in terms of identity, Lynx (Ondina Quadri), also has a unique status.

Both characters are suspended between two states. Not only because they are on the road, but also because they are both detached from their communities, they do not belong to any of the worlds – neither spiritual nor physical – and they are lonely. The decision to go on a journey in search of hope is a kind of social act of rebellion by a emotionally ostracised woman who is limited by her modest social function. The director's sympathy and understanding towards women is not only revealed in the figure of Agata. Each woman in the film is a drawing of a part of the female world, which is even more charming thanks to Samani’s work with non-professional actors. Small Body is thus an anthropological parable about the non-obvious dependencies between women and the rest of society and between each other.

In her feature-length film debut, Samani flirts with magical realism. Although at times she moves dangerously close to the verge of exaggeration, and some of her characters seem too delicately outlined and inconsistent with the presented world, it is impossible to deny the director's poetic and aesthetic talent, as well as her ability to offer a critical deconstruction of social relations through a seemingly simple story. Agatha's path to Limbo is also a path through Limbo – the abyss of a marginalising society and unmerciful Christianity.

Reviewed on: 10 Jul 2021
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Italy, 1900. Young Agata’s baby is stillborn and so condemned to Limbo. Agata hears about a place in the mountains, where infants can be brought back to life for just one breath, to baptise them and save their soul. She undertakes a voyage with her daughter’s small body hidden in a box and meets Lynx, a solitary boy who offers to help her.

Director: Laura Samani

Writer: Marco Borromei, Elisa Dondi, Laura Samani

Starring: Celeste Cescutti, Ondina Quadri

Year: 2021

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Italy, France, Slovenia

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