Title: The Wonders
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Major Players: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck
Out Of Five: 3.5
If you still dream of an idyllic rural life in Europe – a la A Year in Provence or Driving Over Lemons – then Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders will cure you of that pdq. It may be set in Tuscany, but the poverty and sheer hard grind that goes with her portrayal of country life will bring you back to reality with a jolt.
This is a tourist-free Tuscan countryside, where the locals struggle to make a living and actively want to bring in more visitors. They mean money, jobs and relative prosperity. But one farmer isn’t so keen. Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), who lives on a remote property with his wife and four daughters, is constantly under the threat of eviction. He may be the nominal head of the household but the glue that holds it together is eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who looks after her sisters and works alongside her father making their main product, honey. The outside world intrudes on their solitary lives in the shape of a TV competition to promote local produce and, defying her father’s orders, Gelsomina puts in an entry form and they make it to the final. Things will never be the same again.
That’s the surface storyline, but this is a film of many layers. We know little of Wolfgang’s background or how he and his family come to be living on the farm, but he’s determined to be as isolated as possible. Convinced that the world will self-destruct at any moment, he’s difficult to live with – dictatorial, spiteful but, surprisingly, mercenary. Which is where another story comes in, this time about Martin, the silent teenager with a troubled past, placed by the authorities with the family. The last thing he needs is somebody like Wolfgang, but he’s only interested in how much he’ll be paid for taking the boy on. It doesn’t quite stack up with the Wolfgang that we’ve seen so far, although using Martin as more unpaid labour alongside the girls most certainly does. And what’s worse, from Gelsomina’s perspective, is that her father starts to favour him simply because he’s a boy. Given all that she does, it hurts. Deeply.
Then there’s Gelsomina’s own story, which brings a certain mysticism to the film. Not only does she keep the farm going, she has an instinctive connection with living things, the bees in particular. While her sister Marinella (Agnese Graziani) is reluctant to help with the hives, the older girl handles the bees with care and gentleness. Even when she’s stung, that doesn’t change: if anything, it brings about a closer connection between her and the insects and she develops what appears to be a magic trick where individual bees emerge from her mouth and crawl over her face. But, at 12 years old, she’s still a child and doesn’t understand why she’s so cut off from the rest of the world. She’s inevitably attracted by all the things that absorb teenagers – fashion, music etc – but is still loyal to her father and family. Until she shows dangerous signs of thinking for herself and enters the competition, much to her father’s displeasure. She’s heartbroken by his reaction: he cuts her off while he essentially sulks, reflecting his attitude to the rest of the world.
That mystic feel accompanying Gelsomina goes hand in hand with the sense that the story is something of fairytale, with a beautiful princess trying to escape. It becomes more apparent when Gelsomina meets the beautiful actress fronting the competition. She wears something akin to a fairy godmother costume, complete with obviously artificial hair, but still gives the girl a sense of the beauty that can be found in the outside world. By contrast, though, the competition final on TV looks cheap, tacky and artificial.
There’s nothing wistful or sentimental about this coming of age story. It’s as objective as you can get and, as well as showing the growing maturity of the eldest girl, it’s also a portrait of a family living by their own standards. They’re not idealists or eco-warriors, despite caring deeply about the land. Non-conformist is probably the word. Yet, despite the demands and rigours of their everyday life, there are occasional small pleasures and moments when the landscape has a real beauty. And that gives the film an almost unconscious lyricism. Alongside its gentle pace, near total lack of a soundtrack and uncluttered camerawork, it’s a film that holds your attention yet always holds you at arms’ length. Which is exactly how the family relates to the outside world.
The Wonders is released in cinemas on Friday, 17 July and is reviewed on the latest edition of Talking Pictures.