The Wonders is a film of moving realism and pure magic; capturing the turning point in a young, teenage girl’s life as she slowly begins to depart from the unconventional lifestyle of her parents and family. A layered exploration of different forms of yearning and alienation, the film captures many truly beautiful moments and preserves them in amber.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Screenplay: Alice Rohrwacher
Runtime: 110 minutes.
Cast: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Sabine Timoteo.
Plot: Gelsomina is the twelve-year-old daughter of a fiercely independent man, and one of four sisters, living apart from the rest of the world and harvesting honey to sell on the Italian coast. Things are unsettled when the family take in a juvenile delinquent Martin, and through Gelsomina’s insistence that the family farm enter a T.V. competition called the ‘Countryside Wonders.’ Despite this unsettling change, she remains the rock of the family and relentlessly contends with her father’s erratic temper.
Festival Goers? Not a lot of privacy in this household.
Viewed as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.
Review: Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Le meraviglie) is full of magic; capturing moments of sunlight and childhood in a tender bubble, yet also presenting an experience that is undoubtedly unique and unfamiliar to many viewers. It is her second film, and also the second to premiere at Cannes; telling a similar narrative traced by her debut, Corpo celeste, in following the coming-of-age of an adolescent girl within a family living apart from the rest of the world.
The film follows Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the twelve-year-old daughter of a defeated hippy father (Sam Louwyck) who has chosen to drag his family out into the countryside; living off the land and off the grid. She is the eldest of four sisters, assuming the mantle of responsibility and reliability that so often comes with that role and is even necessary with unreliable parents. Her mother (Alba Rohrwacher) is present, but slowly peeling away from Gelsomina’s father and the life he has forced them into. Rounding out the cast is Coco (Sabine Timoteo), a likeminded spirit who does what she can to support the family and oppose the occasional rages of father Wolfgang. Things come to a head when Wolfgang goes a step to far in deciding for the family – taking on silent and troubled boy Martin, a young offender given a second chance, and remaining intent on buying a camel as a symbol of his impossible and sometimes incomprehensible idealism. Gelsomina has more solid plans; stumbling across the filming of a local T.V. programme called the ‘Countryside Wonders,’ and the ethereally ridiculous host Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), Gelsomina becomes determined to enter the family farm into the show’s ‘most traditional family’ competition. These elements of the first longings of teenagehood, the narcissistic idealism of a father, and the quiet tragedy of an unwanted boy do not mix well.
But The Wonders is also something else entirely; a film that seems transported straight from the golden age of Italian cinema and neo-realism. Shot on Super-16 film stock, the grain and texture makes the film feel as if it is put together from home movies – incredibly well composed and shot home movies, sure – but really pieced together from the stuff of memory. It seems to capture the experience of an age or a certain decade, without being marked as period production. As one would expect from a feature filmed on the coast of Lazio, it is drenched in sunlight and the peeling clays of the Mediterranean, yet it is the dream-like night sequences that make this film truly stand out. The film opens with hunters moving through the brush, their searchlights creating surreal patterns – and their shots are heard periodically throughout the film, from a great distance.
This is a smart choice, in a film full of smart and subtle choices; bringing together the disparate forms of alienation thatRohrwacher is trying to portray so tenderly. There are those first notes of individualism within Gelsomina, cleaving away from a life that her father has chosen for her. There is the hard, Fists in the Pocket alienation of Martin who seems resigned to his role as an outcast and preordained petty criminal. There is the alienation of Wolfgang, in seeing the community and ideology he passionately advocated collapse, and who is now forced to carve out an ideological niche for himself and forces his family to help recapture that form of living. Wolfgang and Coco are at odds with the locals over their transplanted Germanness; while Gelsomina and her mother belong both to the Italian language and the customs they have grown up with. ‘We have to stick together ... because it won’t last,’ Wolfgang entreats Gelsomina, gesturing towards Rohrwacher’s savviness in choosing this moment to document, the moment when Gelsomina begins to separate herself from her past and her family. But 'you can’t adapt to the world, you have no idea what is happening out there' a social worker chastises him, gesturing towards the inevitable change that faces the family once the summer ends.
There’s also a certain sort of transcendent image that the masters of neo-realism capture, and that’s present here too – within a dusty barn, Gelsomina and her sister Marinella, drink from a beam of light. Or the sections of the film concerned with the ‘Village Wonders’ themselves; a hodge-podge of ancient Roman, Lombard costumes filtered through the clichés of a certain sort of Italian filmmaking. Here the tableaus come together in a wry twist on Fellini, complete with the small gesture of a gift from the fading beauty Catena. The ‘Etruscan’ traditions of the region are repeatedly referenced within the budget T.V. program, making for kaleidoscopic patchwork of local cultural identity. The eventual winners of the competition are producers of cacciatore sausage, or “hunters” sausage, resonating with the distant shots heard from the hunters throughout the film. And not even the magnificent The Spirit of the Beehive can capture the shots of swarms of bees Rohrwacher presents here; with Gelsomina as Wolfgang’s essential assistant in recapturing escaped swarms and commanding the others in every essential moment of producing honey for the farm. Gelsomina’s talent for the ‘Country Wonders’ competition is the quiet, bravura moment of the film – letting a bee, then two, then three gently escape from her lips. It is a moment worthy of the fool’s highwire act in Fellini’s La Strada; the story of another Gelsomina at a different turning point within adulthood.
The warmth and the ramshackle feel of summer radiate off the screen. Ultimately, Rohrwacher is successful in capturing that sticky, sweet feeling of those youthful periods of change within our life; those amber memories that are even more precious than the lifeblood honey of the farm, which occasions the tension of the film. Rohrwacher and her talented cast of performers make it all seem so effortless and yet so sincere; making The Wonders a film that must be seen.
Rating: Four and a half stars.