An enigmatic fable about a young girl's coming of age provides magical low-key pleasures.
Winner of last year’s Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders might come as a bit of a surprise to some viewers. While Cannes has a reputation of profiling the big, brash and bold of arthouse’s finest—last year’s top prize went to a 3+ hour Chekov-inspired drama, after all—The Wonders goes in the opposite direction of its competitors. It’s a quiet, enchanting coming-of-age tale about a unique family in the Italian countryside, one that drives itself almost entirely by what’s hidden underneath the surface. It’s an approach that doesn’t necessarily work all the time, but it certainly establishes Rohrwacher as a rising talent.
The family at the center of Rohrwacher’s film appears to be run by 12 year old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who helps run the family business of beekeeping and honey-making with her dad, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyk). She also looks after her three sisters, Marinella, Caterina and Luna, when her mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, Alice’s sister), can’t, and also relies on the help of family friend Coco (Sabine Timoteo). Rohrwacher keeps exposition to an absolute minimum, but her script drops several hints of the family living a purposely isolated existence (at one point, Coco implies they lived in some sort of commune in the past). And as Gelsomina starts growing into a young woman, her desire for independence and exploration clash with her family’s self-contained lifestyle, creating a slow, underlying tension.
That tension gets amplified through two developments which make up most of The Wonders’ plot. The first comes in the form of the arrival of a TV production around the area. Gelsomina continually eyes the show’s host (Monica Bellucci, rocking a ridiculous white-haired wig) with curiosity and amazement, and when she learns that the show is offering a cash prize to the “most traditional family” in the area, she jumps at the chance to put her family on the show. Wolfgang wants no part in Gelsomina’s plan, but the growing animosity between them suggests it has to do with everything but the program. The other addition of stress to the family comes when new farming regulations threaten to put an end to the farm’s honey business. In order to get cheap labour to help bring the farm up to standard, Wolfgang signs up for a service that lets him hire young delinquents. But once the quiet, handsome 14 year old Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono) shows up to work, Angelica freaks out, wondering if he will be a bad influence on the girls.
It’s to Rohrwacher’s credit that she manages to introduce these elements without succumbing to the temptation of melodrama. That winds up being Rohrwacher’s biggest strength, as her well-observed, warm eye for her characters infuse the film with a naturalism that feels truly special. It takes a lot of skill to portray this family’s quirks, like Wolfgang’s penchant for sleeping in a bed outdoors, without it falling into caricature. It’s because Rohrwacher never shows an ounce of judgment towards her characters, or the way they choose to live their lives. Almost every moment feels real and unrehearsed because the characters’ specific qualities work inward rather than outward. They combine to form a distinct, yet completely believable portrait of one family, instead of being used as an easy joke to compare their strange behaviour to people’s idea of a “normal” family unit. It’s a breath of fresh air that radiates throughout every frame.
That’s why The Wonders’ first half, primarily focusing on establishing Gelsomina and her family’s routines, works wonderfully. The plotline involving the TV show, one of the film’s biggest faults, suffers from having too much time dedicated to it. Once Gelsomina gets interesting in auditioning for the program, it’s apparent that they’ll end up on the program somehow, making the build-up a bit of a drag to get through. But right when it looks like Rohrwacher might have overstayed her welcome, her film takes a surprising turn for the enigmatic. It’s a bold move, and yet it blends seamlessly within the world Rohrwacher creates. That successful change-up summarizes what makes The Wonders a film that can, at times, turn into something magical. In this low-key tale of a close-knit family, Rohrwacher makes it feel like anything can happen.
Originally published on March 27th, 2015. The Wonders opens in select theaters on October 30.