Mirjam (SKAM’s Josefine Frida Pettersen) is 19 years old, and a world champion freestyle disco dancer. Her Evangelical church takes great pride in this, and they allow for a lot of freedom. As her body begins to give out from the pressure, she collapses onstage when defending her title. Religion is deeply entwined with her life, so Mirjam turns to a stricter, more conservative church for comfort, and to perhaps find deeper meaning in her life. There is a contrast between the old and the new, and here the old is more compelling. The commercialism of Mirjam’s father’s modern church is cold and artificial, while the presumed warmth of tradition is compelling, even if it also contradicts many of her wishes.
The use of Christ-like imagery makes for very well- done bookends. The film opens with Mirjam dancing, showing her in a pose like Jesus Christ, then ends as if an exorcism has just been performed. The dance is a sort of exorcism, a ritualistic manner of washing away one’s sins, and it takes a similar toll. When Christianity is not just used as imagery, it is an overly presence. The first half takes place in and out of churches. We see Miriam attend service, sing Christian pop-rock ballads, and pray. Her endless devotion is clear, but we never are given a reason to believe in how tightly she clings to religion, or why she would want it to grow harsher.
This intensive focus doesn’t stop large portions of the film from growing dry. Others have described it as a two hour nap, but there’s occasionally snaps back to consciousness that one cannot entirely drift off. There is some lovely imagery that the film has going for it, the Nordic setting applies a pastoral softness whenever the non-action moves outside, and it is bathed in the soft neon of the modern church at other times. It’s well acted for a weak script, but that doesn’t counteract some of the hollowness.
To bring back Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher’s film is successful and engaging because its young protagonist’s fixation upon religion is made understandable. We understand her world pushing her towards it, and we understand the oppression of it that causes her to fight back. Mirjam’s struggles are much less clear. Because she enters this new church willingly, we are told about her interest instead of shown it, which makes it a limp exploration of stricter denominations of Christianity for our protagonist. The lead of Corpo Celeste is young enough to be susceptible to influence, while Mirjam is old enough for her choices to be a conscious interest, but with little reason. She is a sort of golden child, and it is almost too good to be true.
Disco could be an interesting juxtaposition of faith and passion for dance, if it took the time to develop any of its character’s logic. Everyone in the film either acts with a prescribed set of beliefs, or, in Mirjam’s case, just feels like a tool to wander through different religious sects. The underdevelopment makes her attachment to the world of disco hard to understand, outside of the competitive nature of her life. Fans of SKAM may delight to see a familiar place on screen, but it is a film that doesn’t quite have an audience outside of this familiarity. It is too focused on the depths of Christianity to be easy for non-Christians to connect with, but too steeped in church conflict for Christians who aren’t in the exact situation Mirjam is in, torn away from modernity and relishing a past filled with restriction.