Laura Samani on ‘Piccolo corpo’: “We all found something of ourselves in the story and its themes”

Italy, 1901. Agata, the mother of a stillborn child, decides to travel alone through Italy in search of redemption for her daughter. A mission not entirely without danger for a young woman at the time. Along the way, she gets help from the wandering Lynx and together they defy prejudice and the enchanting but intimidating Italian landscape, in search of a miracle for her baby. The camerawork and the idyllic landscape are the mythical backdrop for the historical drama “Piccolo corpo” about motherhood, unexpected friendship, and the strength of women.

After a few shorts and documentaries, “Piccolo corpo” (a.k.a. “Small Body”) is the debut film of Italian filmmaker Laura Samani (b. 1989). She had studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Pisa, and directing at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. Her graduation film, “La santa che dorme” (a.k.a. “The Sleeping Saint”), premiered at Cannes Cinéfondation in 2016. Since then, it received international acclaim and was awarded at several international festivals.

Her first feature “Piccolo corpo” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival during the Semaine de la Critique. Last year, it was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival and the Arras Film Festival, among others.

Ms. Samani’s thoughts and comments on how “Piccolo corpo” came about and that you can find here, are from an interview that was available in the press kit of the film. It has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.

“In 2016, I discovered that in Trava, in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, a sanctuary had existed where up until the 19th century, particular miracles were said to occur: stillborn babies could be brought back to life for one breath. A miracle such as this was necessary to baptize them; otherwise, they were condemned to be buried on unconsecrated grounds, like burying a dead cat. Without baptism, they could never have a name or an identity; their souls would wander eternally in limbo. These kinds of places, or sanctuaries of breath or truce, were to be found in the Alps—France had nearly two hundred—and, surprisingly, this history is almost completely unknown despite being a phenomenon back then. The story of these miracles got snagged in some nook of my mind and stayed there, calling for attention. I was struck by one thing in particular: mostly men would travel to these sanctuaries with the small bodies of their infants. Naturally, the women who had just given birth were confined to their beds. So the first question I asked my co-authors, Elisa Dondi and Marco Borromei, who decided to stay with me on my journey—which began with “La santa che dorme”—was, ‘What happens to the woman in bed? What if she decides to go?’ Thus we began writing with only two certainties: we have the character of Agata, the mother, and this is her first pregnancy.

Scene from Laura Samani’s “Piccolo corpo” | Vedette

When the baby is stillborn, Agata grieves but is unable to simply go on, the way everybody else around her seems to. For me, the best part of a story is that moment in life when a character decides to rebel. Agata’s choice is practically scandalous because it denotes pride and protest not only against her religion, but also the laws of nature. There comes a precise moment, usually at night, when the possibilities suddenly seem to consist of only one choice and there is no alternative. So Agata decides to listen to those voices talking about the miracles. Following her instinct and without telling anybody, she sets off on a voyage with her baby in a small box. Alone. Obviously, the practice of resuscitating babies was not welcomed by the Church because it was an abuse of the sacraments and akin to witchcraft. Agata undertakes a voyage to the outer reaches of the unknown, abandoning her roots and risking the loss of herself as well as death. Her conscious desire is to give her daughter a name to be able to let her go; both of them are distinct individuals at that point, but the truth is that this voyage is a way to prolong the state of symbiosis with her daughter that Agata experienced for months—a sort of continuation of her pregnancy whereby the baby is transferred from her stomach to her back, becoming a weight she bears on her shoulders. Her voyage is physical, but becomes transcendental. Agata doesn’t realize that to continue her mission, she must transform herself, and become dead among the living.

Agata needed a traveling companion and this is how the character of Lynx got introduced: wild and cunning. To love is to be compromised, and to be weakened. Lynx shows Agata the way and offers protection, but what he will receive from her in return is something just as necessary for survival. That profound sense of attachment to something loved, and commitment, sacrifice, and the sense of belonging to something you can’t control makes you vulnerable. Thanks to Agata, Lynx is reunited with that part that is the archetype feminine side, which dares to accept the dark side of love: pain.

Celeste Cescutti plays Agate in “Piccolo corpo” | Vedette

Even though I shot the film in my home country, that doesn’t mean that this story is something local. I think stories are the same everywhere. I shot the film chronologically as if I were undertaking the same kind of voyage that Agata did, from the Caorle and Bibione laguna to the Carnia and Tarvisiano mountains. This film has grown with us as we did with the film. While searching for the right locations, I met people who became characters in the film, or perhaps it was the other way around since neither can be considered without the other. Almost the entire cast is made up of people who have never acted before; in some cases even entire families. That’s also why I shot the film in the Veneto and Friuli dialects, not just to provide the authentic language of that time, but to honor the different variations so that the people could express themselves as much as possible in the most natural way. The process of imposing standardized Italian began in the second half of the 1800s and continued under fascism, and was a political operation to control the territory that caused a huge cultural impoverishment, but, luckily, did not succeed in entirely extinguishing the wide variety of different idioms. I think dialect is a precious and often moving enrichment: it’s enough to note that the word for child in the Friuli dialect is frut because a child is the fruit of its parents.

For various reasons and often unrelated to the story itself, we—all the people involved—found something of ourselves in the story and its themes. This is why we often ended up talking more about life than cinema and learned a lot from each other; at times I was the one directing them and at other times, they were the ones guiding me. Versatility is the best form of creating. In the film, God is not to be found in miracles or in prayers, or in a dogma that divides the afterlife into paradise, hell, and limbo. God exists on a different level: in Lynx, who believes in nothing and is thus untouched by the initial premise of miracles; in Agata, who harnesses anger to redraw the confines of what is possible; and in the relationship between these two solitary views that, for a moment, are less painful. There is a thin line that divides life from death, reality from magic, the possibilities we have hoped for, and the time left to us. I hope this film creates a broader shared space without the presumption of finding absolute answers to live in doubt together.”

“Piccolo corpo” (2021, original Italian-language trailer with Dutch subtitles)

PICCOLO CORPO, a.k.a. SMALL BODY (2021) DIR Laura Samani PROD Alberto Fasulo, Nadia Trevisan SCR Laura Samani, Elisa Dondi, Marco Borromei CAM Mitja Licen ED Chiara Dainese MUS Fredrika Stahl CAST Celeste Cescutti, Ondina Quadri