Yle Vianello as Marta in ‘Corpo Celeste’

Francesco, the son of a rich merchant of Assisi and now a prisoner of war, is being led into captivity when he hears screaming behind him. The people who are not fortunate enough to have families to ransom them are being killed. We pass one of them, who is being flayed alive, just after seeing the masses of dead killed earlier. But this particular moment, when Francesco suddenly understands how arbitrarily he will remain alive as others die, marks the moment he begins his transformation into a figure we know: Francis of Assisi.

Francesco is a 1989 movie by the Italian director Liliana Cavani, who has filmed the story of St. Francis three times. (Francesco is her second attempt; the other two, to the best of my knowledge, have not been released in the United States.) When I watched Francesco I was unaware of its reputation, in some quarters, as worse-than-horrible, but I did find it an odd film. Its American release was cut from a running time of 150 minutes to a little over 130 minutes, which means the film makes less and less sense as it careens toward its end. Francis is portrayed as a sort of proto-Protestant figure in ways that are at odds with his submission to ecclesial authority. While St. Clare (here, “Chiara”) also plays a role in the film and is usefully and totally unsexualized, she is the only woman to follow Francis, and the Poor Clares simply do not exist. It also feels like a much older movie than it is—a kind of throwback to the life-of-Christ biopic in its visuals and its strangely cast, conspicuously beautiful lead (Mickey Rourke, playing a very well-nourished and muscular Francis). But all of these flaws conceded, I still liked the movie. It’s interested in holiness in a serious way.

Cavani’s movies usually have this worse-than-bad reputation; she embraces a kind of total, transcendent tastelessness in her pursuit of what interests her. She is most famous for the spectacularly offensive 1974 movie The Night Porter, in which an SS officer (Max, played by Dirk Bogarde) and the concentration-camp victim he sexually abused (Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling) are thrown together again after the war and begin an affair. In The Night Porter, a secret society of ex-Nazi officials put each other on trial by gathering all the evidence and witnesses they can find and systematically destroying them. They find this therapeutic and healing; not only do they experience no remorse, they are all trapped in reenactments of their pasts. Whatever they pretend they are achieving is actually accomplished between the two lovers, who in reuniting seem to find a way of genuinely reckoning with what he has done and what has been done to her. Thus, by the end of the movie, they are killed.

Much of Cavani’s work is either unavailable in the United States or hard to find, but the three films of hers that I have seen—Francesco, The Night Porter, and Ripley’s Game—are all interested in luck and morality, in brutality and justice, and in innocence as a prized but elusive quality. In Ripley’s Game, a man who insults the international criminal Tom Ripley is manipulated by him into murdering a stranger for money. “Innocence,” Ripley muses, setting the price at which he thinks the man will do it, “is expensive.” Which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to Francesco.

If innocence is one of Cavani’s interests, what makes her approach to it distinctive is that innocence is not a quality one has and then loses forever. Francesco is a story about acquiring innocence, which is indeed an expensive thing. For Francis, it requires not only stripping himself of money and possessions and exposing himself to public humiliation, but also inflicting emotional brutality on his father and mother, who are portrayed by Cavani as essentially good people who believe in generosity toward the poor but who are bewildered by their son’s coldness toward them. The scene in which Francis strips himself of all his clothes to break any ties he has to his father was so sad that I had to switch the movie off and resume it another day.

Francesco doesn’t judge. He simply knows that he must do this to go on living. However, in Cavani’s movie, this is still not enough. He has to be further stripped. He rolls around naked in the snow in a highly uncomfortable scene in which he is either forcing himself into a position of maximal pain or actually trying to screw the landscape. He watches others follow his principles and then begin to quarrel with him and his ideas. After renouncing his family, he has to return to comfort his dying father. He sickens, weakens, is plagued by doubt, and then, finally, receives the stigmata and dies. It’s only when he receives the stigmata that Francesco becomes innocent. As Clare says in the movie’s closing lines: “I thought that love had made his body identical to the beloved’s. And I asked myself if I would ever be capable of loving that much.”


Francesco is a story about acquiring innocence, which is indeed an expensive thing.

I followed Francesco with Alice Rohrwacher’s 2011 movie Corpo Celeste, in which a young girl named Marta halfheartedly attends confirmation classes led by a well-meaning but not particularly helpful woman who cannot answer any questions that deviate even slightly from the curriculum. What, Marta wants to know, does the phrase “Eli Eli lama sabachthani” mean? No answers are forthcoming. Marta’s own family is firmly working class and also does not have time to help her. The parish is struggling and the priest, while not a bad priest precisely, is corrupt in some refreshingly boring ways, campaigning for a politician and instructing his parishioners on how to vote in the hope of getting transferred to a healthier church.

I went into Corpo Celeste wondering if it would be a story of children’s piety, of the sort where children take things more seriously or too seriously and provoke some kind of inconvenient response, or the child dies (as happens in, for instance, Flannery O’Connor’s story “The River”). Instead, it was a lower-key and in some ways better story, one in which Marta is confronted less by adult hypocrisy than by the adult need to get on with it. But it also turned out to be an inversion of Francesco’s story in some interesting and unexpected ways.

Marta, like Clare, cuts off her hair to make herself unpresentable; unlike Clare, she does this to try to escape undergoing confirmation, which she is increasingly unsure she can do in good faith. While Cavani doesn’t play up Francis’s link to animals, aside from a scene in which one person after another tries and fails to slaughter a lamb, Marta ends up taking flight from confirmation when she witnesses some kittens being killed. She is marked throughout the movie by her refusal to eat fish.

And, like Francis, Marta ends up confronting God in a ruined church with a crucifix that is very much like the Sam Damiano cross. After she runs away from the church, first to save the kittens, then out of horror at their fate, her priest sees her wandering by the highway as he’s on his way to pick up a crucifix from a rundown church in another town. It is there, talking with another priest, that she is told Jesus understood despair and was found to be laughable by those around him. When she brings this up with her own priest, as they drive back home with the crucifix strapped to the top of his car, he is so irritated that he jerks the steering wheel and the crucifix goes flying off into the ocean. In the movie this did not seem to be a joke at Christ’s expense but rather a reproof directed at the priest, who cannibalizes decrepit churches rather than rebuilding them, and who, like almost all the adults in the movie, doesn’t know how to guide Marta into a serious faith. But, of course, one’s mileage may vary.

Corpo Celeste also feels like a movie about how innocence is expensive, in both a cynical sense and a true one. The various people in the movie who are simply doing the best they can need to feel that this is enough. The one adult who treats Marta seriously—the priest of the ruined church, from which they take the crucifix—is, not coincidentally, a failure. He can no longer tell himself that doing the best he could was doing enough. This cynical adult innocence is expensive because it comes at a high price—reality—which those who adopt it must carefully pretend isn’t being paid. There is no indication in the movie that Marta is an exceptionally intelligent student whose questions a teacher couldn’t possibly be expected to answer. None of the children in the confirmation class are being well served by it. The hope is that getting them over the line will be enough.

But there’s a sense in which Marta’s innocence, in asking real questions and needing real answers, is also expensive, in effort and time and self-knowledge, and that it really imposes a cost on adults, and that shepherding this innocence into a real adult innocence might be almost impossible for any group of adults to do. Corpo Celeste is not a movie about the loss of innocence, but it is a movie that documents how innocence gets lost. It carefully and subtly points out that true innocence is maintained only through encountering reality, not avoiding it. We don’t know precisely why Marta refuses to eat fish, but we do see her first decline it after a conversation about refugees dying in the sea.


Innocence invokes many things—purity, guiltlessness, stupidity, holiness—without corresponding to any of them.

“Innocence” is a strange word. It invokes many things—purity, guiltlessness, stupidity, holiness—without corresponding to any of them. It is the way in which innocence is never quite the right word that makes it an interesting word to push against and to use. The fall-from-innocence narrative assumes that childhood is an Edenic state from which we decline, instead of childhood being a time in which we are capable of acting viciously but are also, for the most part, powerless. Stories of the loss of innocence, in which childhood simplicity is undone by sexual awakening and adult initiation, are another way of maintaining the cynical innocence of adulthood, in which living another way is always going to be impossible.

In a Christian context, innocence cannot be thought of as an irrevocable binary, had or lost forever; instead, we are all in some way born guilty and receive the possibility of innocence as a gift. And the restoration of innocence, for Christians, is very costly; it costs everything. But there is no Edenic state for anyone in a post-Eden world. Christianity believes in our fall but that is not the end of the matter.

Innocence, so rarely found in life, is also what is often invoked against people who are less-than, who are guilty of something, therefore given nothing. These already-guilty are lepers for Francesco, refugees for Corpo Celeste. What these movies suggest is that innocence can become a possibility only at the moment people understand that they are not innocent; that growth in innocence can only come the closer and closer one gets to harsh reality; that no one can be innocent unless they give themselves over totally to love. Perhaps there is no other way to do this than to embrace that most resisted Christian teaching: sell everything you have and give it all to the poor.

B. D. McClay is a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York.

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Published in the March 2020 issue: View Contents
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