By Angelo Muredda
A young mother’s desire to give her stillborn child a name prompts a perilous trip to a mountain sanctuary in Laura Samani’s assured if familiar Small Body. Celeste Cescutti is appropriately severe as Agata, a pure-hearted stoic who risks life and limb to carry her limbo-bound child to a remote church where such unfortunates can reportedly get a soul breathed into them long enough to be baptized. To make the journey, Agata must resist the restrictive gender expectations and stubbornness of her coastal village, which is not far from the M. Night Shyamalan variety, as evinced by the anti-science elders she has to cast off, not to mention the bright yellow shawl and sturdy backpack she sports as she trudges into the woods with puckish companion Lynx (Ondina Quadri).
Small Body’s echoes of both the Shyamalan film and Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist western about trudging through harsh terrain, situate it in a tradition of elemental quest narratives about superstition and faith. Samani’s feature debut is less evocative than those antecedents, and its mythical conceit also feels a bit less grounded in fertile cultural terrain, even given its regional specificity and interest in Catholic miracles, gender-fluid sidekicks, and ahistorically plucky women protagonists; while the film is set in 1900, its setting feels effectively cut off from time. Still, Samani has the goods to deliver a more singular whole than the film’s parts might suggest, from Mitja Ličen’s rough-hewn cinematography to the crisp cutting and assortment of lyrical set pieces.