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A grieving mother sets out to give her stillborn child a proper burial in Laura Samani's affecting debut feature.

A grieving mother sets out to bury her dead child appropriately in Laura Samani’s impressive debut feature.

A Dozens of women of all ages circle a ghostly, white-linen-covered figure in procession. They hum in harmony as the veil is ceremonially removed to reveal a young, pregnant woman who walks quietly towards the sea. This improvised and confrontational introductory scene proposes the central thematic question of the tiny body: Will this mother sink or swim?

A portrait of motherhood set in northeastern Italy in the 1900s, Laura Samani’s feature debut is a disturbing and wandering legend. With co-writers Nadia Trevison and Alberto Fasullo, the director narrates a 20th-century folktale with deeply religious roots that crowds the coastal community where Agata (Celeste Cescuti) lives. When Agata gives birth to a dead daughter, who is captured and buried while she is asleep, her gripes increase.

Thrown in painful mourning, Agata takes out the small coffin and moves to a mountain sanctuary that can miraculously give her daughter a breath of life in which she can be named, baptized and a purification. Beyond can be put to rest. This personal narrative of mourning has the atmospheric feel of a religious epic, a journey of grandeur laden with breathtaking imagery and sacred symbolism. During the trek to Agata, she meets Lynx (Ondina Quadri), a yellow-eyed thief who becomes a careful traveling partner in this journey to salvation.

With a handheld camera, Samani captures the entire journey emotionally and physically that the pair begins with faithful attention. With each step, their conservatism begins to crumble as they become attached to a shared disapproval of their familiar communities. Cescutti and Quadri’s tentative performances struck a growing maturity with smaller bodies, where Agata and Lynx deviate further from the image of womanhood in which they are framed.

For a rumour on Aadhar’s plight, the little body falls into a limbo on its own. At the midpoint, the motion stops. Proceeding from village to village, the transfixing intensity of this perilous journey diminishes and after superficial exploration an intriguing backstory about the Lynx’s dismemberment is left. Even Agata is sidelined because the conversation between the Lynx and the villagers is not translated, leaving her in the dark.

Light, especially its absence, plays an important role in Mitja Lissen’s cinematography, whether it is the fading of a lantern or the setting sun beyond the horizon. Agata’s hope seems like a twinkling candlelight, a flame dancing and plunging her into complete darkness and gloomy gloom. These emotional vocals are fueled by composer Frederica Stahl’s haunting score that harmonizes bird songs, whistling wind, and angelic melodies with church-like ricocheting acoustics.

It’s a masterful directorial debut, focusing on the power of faith and the power of motherhood to become symbiotic beasts fighting for dominance in their protagonist’s mind while seeking autonomy.

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Ketya Cerny