An interview with italian film director alice rohrwacher

The debut film of writer/director Alice Rohrwacher, Corpo Celeste is about 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello) as she adapts to life in a small Southern Italian town ahead of her confirmation. A reflective, cerebral, and patient film, it examines the effects of Catholicism on both a struggling community and on maturing youths, as well as exploring the personal journey of a girl dealing with her own burgeoning adolescence.

Corpo Celeste opens in selected cinemas this weekend, but we spoke to Rohrwacher when she visited for the UK premiere of the film at the London Film Festival.

What drew you to this story for your first film ?

I’ve never directed even a short film before, let alone a feature film, so the approach for myself and my producer Carlo Cresto-Dino was to start questioning how Italian society has changed. It has undergone a very deep transformation in the last 20 years. The research focused eventually on the idea of the parish church and catechism teaching of the scriptures, and those who teach this religious doctrine. When we had enough material we thought of narrating all we’d gathered through the experience of one person.

In the film Marta is very quiet - she observes everything but she doesn’t interact with much. Was that a conscious decision and what were you trying to accomplish through it?

Marta is at an age where you need to choose who you belong to. You look at others as models. You’re trying to figure out how to fit into a group of people. It’s a phase of life where you observe before you make a decision and then you take up a position. I wanted to tell a story about that age. She’s non-judgemental: she goes to the confirmation classes and looks at her peers with surprise. They’re mysterious to her. She isn’t rebellious. When she understands that she doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t enter into this group, she just leaves and goes away.

She rejects the church ultimately, but it’s not a thesis or a PhD. It’s a story of a few weeks in the life of a young girl becoming an adult. We didn’t want to be confined to the problems that exist within the church but use it as a ground, to ask questions more than to give answers.

You began your career making documentaries. Do you approach fiction differently and are there things that you’ve taken from documentary that you apply to the process?

From documentaries I learnt a lot because you have to do it all on your own. You have to do the research, shoot it, edit it, you have to even do the advertising. You really get fit: you get muscles from it. Also when you approach reality as a documentary filmmaker you absolutely need to understand what is your point of view in relation to that reality. So it’s a very good school.

However, I haven’t just learnt from documentaries, I have a background in theatre and music which is as important. In Italy you see a great divide between cinema and all the other arts. I was very lucky because I’ve worked in theatre, for the radio, in music and documentaries, so I learned to communicate in different fields. In music I learned you have to be able to work in a team - on your own you do not exist. From theatre I learned to trust the actor and their performance so that it’s integral and organic, and also about the value of rehearsing, which is something that you wouldn’t have in cinema.

Do you feel your relative youth helped you connect with the story?

I dislike talking in terms of gender, male and female, young and old. I think each experience has its own value. I am younger than the average Italian filmmaker, and this has negative and positive aspects. In terms of the positive, you have nothing to lose. You can really throw yourself in and take risks. You’re more free. But everything is a bit more black and white at this age, maybe.