Programme Notes: Small Body

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A buzz fills the air. A young woman, veiled and heavily pregnant, walks towards the sea. A procession of villagers guide her across the white sand, singing and humming, their voices blending into a sound larger than themselves. 'Misfortune departs, grace comes in,' whispers a white-haired woman as she cuts the veiled woman’s palm, drawing blood. Suddenly, the veil is gone, and we follow her face, serene and beautiful, as she walks towards the waves to wash the blood away.

Blood and water, air and sand, the gentle roar of the sea and the soft hum of human voices. The opening scenes of Small Body invite us to enter a sensual world, rich with elemental detail. We feel the sharp pain of that knife, the sting of salt in an open wound, the curious vibrations of otherworldly voices. This arresting introduction, rich with mystery and ritual, immediately sets the scene for something special. Small Body is the kind of film that you feel like you can swim in – it laps at your toes, washes over you, until finally you find yourself submerged.

Set in 1900s Italy, Small Body centres on Agata (Celeste Cescutti), a young peasant woman in a rural island community who is grief-stricken when her stillborn daughter is buried unbaptised. Her family urge her to move on, but Agata is devastated by the idea that her unnamed baby has been condemned to Limbo. When she hears a rumour about a church on the mainland where stillborn babies are miraculously revived, for one breath, so they can be baptised, she sees a glimmer of hope. Agata sets out alone, carrying her baby in a small box under her arm, on an epic journey to save her daughter’s soul.

Small Body is in many ways a small film. The debut feature from Italian director Laura Samani is a quietly contemplative story, simply shot and low budget with few characters or frills. At the same time however, this small story is also an epic. Agata’s journey takes her across land and sea, through forests, lakes and mountains even, at one point, through the centre of the earth. It’s a journey that at times feels like a mythic quest, and at other times like a fairy-tale. Early on, Agata encounters Lynx (Ondina Quadri), a feral solitary boy who offers to help her find her way. The two form an uneasy, ambiguous bond, and together stumble into a series of strange quasi-magical adventures, encountering a gang of kidnappers, a gun-toting female bandit, even a mountain which is rumoured to eat women.

While this strange story has fantastical elements, it remains rooted in an otherwise spare and realistic setting. As in Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazarro, the world that Samani creates is curiously unmoored in time and infused with a bewitching blend of the real and the imagined. Much of that magic comes from the films unique setting. Small Body was shot in in Friuli Venezia-Giulia, a region in Northeast Italy with a distinctive landscape and rich cultural traditions. Most of the actors are non-professionals who speak in dialect (even in Italy Small Body is screened with subtitles). This decision reflects the reality of the early 1900s, a period pre-Fascist era 'Italianisation,' when many rural Italians still spoke minority dialects, but it also demonstrates just how cut off these characters are from the rest of the country and the wider world. The peasant folk that Agata and Lynx meet still live lives full of ritual and superstition. In one scene a bandit stumbles across a lightbulb and is nonplussed. 'What is this crazy thing?' he asks bewildered. When he is told it is used to make light, he refuses to fall for the bait. 'You’re fooling me!' he declares, before smashing it angrily on the ground.

Within this superstitious world names have a huge symbolic importance. 'If you have no name, it’s like you don’t exist,' says Agata, capturing in a single poignant statement the motivation behind her dangerous mission. By risking everything to name her daughter, Agata hopes to save her child’s soul, but she also longs to have a name for her grief, and for those around her to acknowledge the loss that she has endured. Lynx does not disclose his name to Agata (or the audience) for the first half of the film, and when he finally does it is a sign of vulnerability that marks a turning point in the relationship between the two characters. Lynx though, is a character who has named himself, choosing an appropriate name to suit his wild transient life. When he warns Agata that 'you don’t give a name to dead things,' he is commenting both on Agata’s quest and his own reinvention. The trans community has long recognised the power of choosing your own name, a weight encapsulated in the term 'deadname.' Lynx’s relinquishing of his former name, and with it his former life, can be seen as both a death and a birth.

Given her preoccupation with names, we can assume that Samani put a lot of thought into the curious, ambiguous naming of her film. What is the 'Small Body' at the heart of this story? Perhaps it’s the baby’s body, carried for many miles in a tiny box, across land and sea. Yet that title could also refer to Agata herself, or to Lynx, both individuals, small parts of larger wholes, who choose to break away from their communities in order to pursue their own destinies. By pushing against taboos and expectations, Agata and Lynx become two small bodies, orbiting one another, pulled together and torn apart by strange forces. In the end, perhaps that’s all any of us are. Small bodies, rootless and wandering, drifting through the world, waiting for someone to call our name.

Rachel Pronger
Writer and Co-Founder of feminist film collective Invisible Women
6 April 2022

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