Being a young teen is disorienting enough without having to suddenly relocate. But after a childhood spent in civilized Switzerland, 13-year-old Marta (Yle Vianello) is forced to fend for herself in the thoroughly foreign (if ancestrally native) terrain of southern Italy. Weirdly seduced by Calabria’s lunar postindustrial landscape, she’s besieged by hormones and shifting social demands; with her single mother working the sunrise shift, the lonely teen seeks acceptance in her church’s confirmation class. There, Marta watches her strident teacher (Pasqualina Scuncia) harbor ambiguously ardent feelings for the shifty parish priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), all the while hammering away at the imperatives of Catholic faith.
Alice Rohrwacher’s debut fictional feature is an uncommonly insightful portrait of nascent womanhood, assisted in no small measure by Vianello’s disarmingly naturalistic performance. Her Marta is composed but antsy, often Mona Lisa–like in her opacity. (If she doesn’t understand what she’s feeling, why should we?) But the film elevates into something oddly sublime the moment this adolescent is picked up on the highway by the community’s spiritual leader, embarking on a journey involving murdered kittens, political scheming and a stolen crucifix. Here’s when Rohrwacher’s realist story tips tantalizingly close to allegory—articulating a collision between the celestial and the embodied, where there’s nothing more powerful or strange than a young woman’s coming of age.
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