The ethically committed, humanly intimate principles of neorealism are currently being revitalised by a new generation of Italian filmmakers working on the boundary of fiction and documentary, whether their films are received as narratively stylised documentary (Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, 2016) or as fictions in which non-professionals play versions of themselves in their own milieu (Jonas Carpignano, US-based Roberto Minervini).

Il mio corpo is a similar hybrid. Michele Pennetta, following 2016’s medium-length portrait of life on an illegal fishing boat Pescatori di corpi, calls his new film a documentary; but as such, it is unusually structured, offering two seemingly unrelated portraits in parallel, until the strands finally intersect.

The two central figures, both social outsiders in Sicily, are Oscar, a teenager from a large disadvantaged family, and Nigerian immigrant Stanley. Alternating vignettes show Oscar out scavenging metal, taking bike rides alone or with his older brother, and at home with his family, including his father’s new partner; and Stanley doing various jobs, attending an African dance night and accompanying his friend and flatmate Blessed to a meeting about the latter’s unsuccessful visa application.

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Oscar in Il Mio Corpo

What partly makes the film appear fictional is the suggestion of a theme: a sense of grace, or hope, intimated by the organ music, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, played early on in the church that Stanley cleans, and reprised at the end. Apart from the Catholic connotations of Il mio corpo, ‘my body’, the film is also about the corporeal experience of being in the world. This is apparent in the African meals that Stanley and Blessed enjoy together, in the intimacy of their interlude bathing in the sea, and in the bike sequences, the camera rolling ahead of Oscar and his brother as they cruise along winding roads (highly crafted sound design catches the bikes’ rattle and the hiss of gravel).

Shot in ’Scope, the film unashamedly cultivates a painterly approach, notably in some chiaroscuro shots and in its landscapes. The colour palette boots up the blues of the Sicilian sky, with a panorama of parched hills bisected by a long white diagonal of sheep. There’s also a striking close-up of Stanley as he stops to contemplate the hills around him. Pennetta likes to get right up to his characters as they pause for thought, the camera hunkering down at table height for low-angle close-ups at the Prestifilippo dinner table.

The sense of narrative shaping only emerges fully when the two leads finally meet. Oscar finds himself at night at the old mine where Stanley is camping; they spot each other at a distance, two patches of torchlight in the dark. Pennetta cuts to Oscar asleep in Stanley’s bed, his host sitting nearby, keeping silent vigil. Nothing is said, but the final burst of the Stabat Mater suggests a redemptive act of everyday samaritanism: a contrived but modestly executed moment in which this documentary, if it truly is that, earns its closure as a story economically and satisfyingly told.

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