Small Body is the tale of a young woman who goes on an epic journey with precious cargo strapped to her back. She encounters highway robbers and non-binary loners, singing fishwives and superstitious coalminers. The precious cargo is the small body of the title, for the heroine, Agata (Celeste Cescutti) has given birth to a stillborn daughter. It is her mission to reach a mythical sanctuary where stillborn babies can miraculously take their first breath and thus be baptized.
The setting is northeast Italy and is filmed in the various dialects and languages of that territory of fluctuating borders. Agata is from a fishing village, at one point declaring: ‘My sister’s hair smells like the sea’. When the story shifts geographically, language changes and interpreters are necessary to progress to her destination. First-time director Laura Samani gives each place a distinctive look, whether it’s the bleached expanses of the Adriatic coast or the rocky terrain of the Slovenian border, the landscapes are characters in their own right, just as the languages and dialects are.
The time is the turn of the last century, a fact indicated by the arrival of electric light bulbs ‘in the city’, but the feel is much older. While Agata is a Catholic, the rituals hark back to a more ancient, pagan time. Agata’s journey is reminiscent of a mythological legend or a medieval fable and there is much about the film that is magical, with the symbiotic relationship between the natural world, paganism and Christianity at the fore.
This is very much a woman’s film, with men barely making an appearance other than in very peripheral ways. Agata is in virtually every scene, Cescutti’s serious face and furrowed brow signalling her grief and her determination. Agata meets her travelling companion, Lince (Lynx, played by Ondina Quadri), discovering her in a forest like a woodland creature with startling eyes and an ethereal beauty. Like Moll Yellowhammer, Lince lives as a male, protecting herself but possibly also as a sexual choice. This decision has led to her being ostracised by her family but has brought her significant freedom.
While the community spirit of women helping each other out is depicted, Samani makes clear that this is not always from a spirit of pure altruism. Agata is often viewed as a commodity: first she is about to be sold off as a wet nurse to a rich landowner and then, when she is tended after collapsing on the journey, her hair is chopped off, one woman telling her: ‘Nothing is for nothing’. It seems that Agata’s body parts are commodities to be bought or traded.
This is an extremely accomplished debut by Samani, who has created a distinctive and memorable film full of textural and linguistic nuance. With fine performances from the two central characters and an interesting use of music – lots of a cappella singing and chanting –Small Body showcases Samani’s considerable talent.