We all know the coming-of-age story’s routine: By the end, nothing will ever be the same—but that usually only applies to the hero’s life. By the end of Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders, the whole world will never be the same. Depicting a rural Italian family struggling against the merciless course of progress that will inevitably sweep their beekeeping business into obscurity, the film is seen through a young girl’s eyes, capturing a world that’s crumbling just as she’s ready to live in it.
Writer/director Rohrwacher has crafted a curiously spellbinding portrait of farm life in the Tuscan countryside. It’s wistful without sentimentality, realist but bearing a haunting dreaminess. In fact, its indelible mood and unforced attention to characters and setting most likely helped it win the Grand Jury Prize (second in esteem to the Palme d’Or) at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) is the oldest of four daughters living on a farm with their parents. She’s 12 years old, but very grown up for her age, helping her father (Sam Louwyk) tend to the bees and harvest honey while serving as a domineering parent to her younger sisters. Meanwhile, Rohrwacher smartly keeps the commentary subtle: There are no big, evil corporations invading the town, nor does she indulge in long speeches about how the farmers are getting screwed. The site of conflict for her characters is simply the confluence of new technology and new regulations adding up to an insurmountable obstacle.
The family’s latest problem comes from the government, who announces that new sanitary guidelines demand regulations to the family’s honey “lab”—which is nothing more than a ramshackle room with honey machines and buckets which must be swapped out by hand so they don’t overflow. Installing washable walls, a drain and other requirements is way out of the family’s already-dire budget. And yet, as such forces threaten to close the farm, two other foreign elements invade the family’s life.
The first is a TV crew in town, filming a show called The Land of Wonders. Underlining how the area is becoming more of a novelty and tourist attraction than an actual source of production, the show promises a cash reward for the local family with the best traditional farm product and story. Similarly, Rohrwacher portrays the show as completely ridiculous. In it, everyone wears Etruscan costumes to pay tribute to the area’s heritage. As far as convincing narratives go, the show doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—it seems to have been engineered for grotesquery—but The Land of Wonders steers the film toward its strange, surrealist final sequences.
Appropriately, the scene that introduces the TV show marks the first time the film really delves into its more overtly dream-like qualities. In a Fellini-esque sequence, the daughters and their father chance upon a shoot on a scenic island. Monica Bellucci appears as a sort of angel, the show’s host Milly Catena, donning a frilly, white head dress and trailed by a crewmember with a light reflector to make her appear literally radiant. While the artifice of it all is plain to see, the action seems all the more magical to the girls for it.
Part of the reason that TV spot seems so glamorous is that cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s visuals don’t idealize hard, dirty peasant life. Rohrwacher has worked in documentaries in the past, and that may have informed her observational style. The film has no score, leaving the excellent sound design’s mix of hums, both natural and mechanical, to establish its atmosphere. Lungu’s interactions with various cast members are usually quiet, but carry both charm and intrigue if you’re willing to go along with their deliberate pace.
The second foreign element to invade the family’s life is a juvenile delinquent named Martin (Luis Huilca). He comes to live and work at the farm as part of a program that will compensate the family in exchange for training the boy. Martin only understands a regional dialect—and doesn’t speak aloud in any language—but he has a gift for whistling. He is essentially a misfit outsider in a family of misfit outsiders, which explains why Gelso is strangely drawn to him, developing a deep sympathy for his plight. And, as the only boy joining a family of girls, Martin also illustrates the sexism of the local culture. Gelso’s father receives chides for having four daughters and no sons: Having a strong boy to help with work is very different from having a bunch of girls. If Gelso’s youth causes people to doubt her abilities, her gender does so even more.
The girl is certainly no one of whom any father should be ashamed: She’s whip-smart, and has an expert grasp on the family business. She knows the precise number of hives on hand, and corrects her father’s diagnoses of the cause of dead bees. Her greatest character flaw is her expectations of her younger sisters to already know everything she knows. She wants to be a grown up, and has yet to realize that grown-ups also must enjoy singing and dancing once in a while.
The most impressive aspect of The Wonders is that it manages to explore so many different themes without seeming disjointed. It touches on poverty, progress, gender issues, media and tourism with sparse dialogue and a pliable narrative. But Lungu’s performance anchors the movie, as it embodies the fragility that lies between self-assuredness and doubt. Yes, she’s incredibly smart, but she’s also still very young. The film wants its audience to re-discover both just how wondrous and just how cold the world can be.
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Writer: Alice Rohrwacher
Starring: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Monica Bellucci, Alba Rohrwacher, Sabine Timoteo, Agnese Graziani, Sam Louwyck, Luis Huilca
Release Date: October 30, 2015