Exploring The Rarely Seen Grief Of Stillbirth

Photo Courtesy of Alpha Violet.
What does it mean to have faith? Faith in yourself, faith in your beliefs, faith in the people around you? What lengths would you go to to explore such a faith? Filmmaker Laura Samani is devoted to these questions in her debut feature film, Small Body, a lyrical portrait of a woman who sets out on an odyssey to save her stillborn baby’s soul from Limbo. In tackling such a difficult subject matter and something not often depicted on screen, Samani places a necessary yet gentle spotlight on stillbirth—considered in the UK to be when a baby is born dead after 24 weeks of pregnancy—and its world-altering effects.
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In her secluded island community in early-1900s Italy, Agata is at the mercy of tradition and expectation. She is welcomed into motherhood by the women of the island in a pre-birthing ritual, veiled in a muslin cloth and led to the water’s edge. An elder cuts into Agata’s hand with a knife, her blood an offering to the sea, and recites a prayer as she lowers it into the water: “misfortune departs, grace comes in.” Yet when her daughter is stillborn, Agata finds little solace in the women around her. “Your body will forget,” they tell her as she lies there, broken and lost. 
It is only the hushed whispers about a mythical place in the mountains where Agata’s baby could be revived long enough to be named, and therefore baptised, that ease some of her woes. Devastated as she is, Agata is also concerned about her daughter’s soul—without a baptism, she will be destined to languish in purgatory, or Limbo. With a fierce determination and parental devotion, she leaves the island at dawn for this potential saviour, having exhumed her daughter’s small body from the ground to take with her. It is at this point that Samani’s film becomes its most folkloric and transcendental—against a backdrop of autumnal forests and mountains, Agata’s journey leads her into the path of villains and friends, danger and hope. Small Body takes a fairytale-esque approach to Agata’s story within its period setting, which allows the film to speak to experiences of parenthood and its resilience in a more fluid and artistic way without employing a gritty, social realist angle to depict her loss.
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Agata meets Lynx early on in her journey, a rough, roguish boy with a hidden kind heart and enough curiosity to help Agata find the mountain sanctuary. Trust is hard to come by in these parts, especially as the practice of reviving a stillborn baby is considered a sort of witchcraft, but Agata and Lynx find an unspoken common ground, sensing a camaraderie and friendship blooming despite their suspicious instincts. Agata’s quest will not only save herself and her baby’s soul, but will offer Lynx a release and a freedom that he didn’t know was possible. Such is the power of Samani’s film, which finds resolution and peace within the sadness of grief in multiple ways. 
Photo Courtesy of Alpha Violet.
Exploring the subject of stillbirth with such tenderness and quiet reflection is also a powerful strength of Small Body. Like 2021’s Pieces of a Woman, Kornél Mundruczó’s Netflix drama about the trauma of stillbirth and its lasting impact, the film places an important spotlight on this particular form of child loss. In Mundruczó’s film, it is explored boldly and brutally in a twenty four-minute long take opening scene detailing protagonist Martha’s labour and the subsequent death of her baby. Around the release of Pieces of a Woman Pippa Vosper wrote for British Vogue about the film’s handling of stillbirth, hoping that “with the conversation continuing to open up, Pieces of a Woman will surely create further talking points between those that may not have ventured into this often unspoken, and frequently misunderstood, territory.” 
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Whereas taboos seem to be breaking somewhat around abortion, miscarriage and other pregnancy-related topics on screen (recent examples include Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Saint Frances, Lingui, The Sacred Bonds, and the forthcoming Happening), depictions of stillbirth remain few and far between. One of few other high-profile examples of stillbirth on film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma depicts the life of pregnant Cleo, a maid for a wealthy family in Mexico City. Cleo’s waters break prematurely while out shopping when she gets caught in a protest between student demonstrators and a paramilitary group intent on violence. The stress of the situation is compounded by the difficulty of leaving the tense, crowded streets and Cleo’s baby is later stillborn. While Roma’s narrative is not as directly concerned with stillbirth overall as Pieces of a Woman, its occurrence in a film so widely seen and recognised offers a key opportunity for discussion and understanding. Small Body provides another opportunity to raise awareness of the subject, using its looser and more mystic style to portray such a trauma in a way that provides both a sense of realism but also a beautiful, ethereal quality that expresses how difficult it is to define something so complex and painful.
Agata ends her journey with the same devotion as when she began, drawing ever closer to her daughter’s salvation. But whereas Pieces of a Woman and Roma both maintained focus on their protagonists as individuals and the personal nature of their suffering, Small Body expands its reach to look at caregiving as a community exercise. Lynx, with Agata until the very end, plays a pivotal role in fulfilling her quest, as do the kind villagers, often women, who they encounter on their path. Agata’s faith in herself to embark on such a task is rewarded by the faith she finds in others, far away from those at home who tried to quiet her. Samani’s film feels both tender and monumental, a poignant ode to parenthood in a way that  looks beyond its traditional confines while creating space for catharsis in its handling of sadness and grief with such poetic grace. 
Small Body will be in UK cinemas on 8th April

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