The Wonders (Le meraviglie)

Italy (2014) Dir. Alice Rohrwacher

Holding true to old traditions and methods isn’t always a bad thing but there are times when refusing to modernise just isn’t practical and the effects can have a far deeper reach than just the financial, as Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature.

In a remote village in the mountains of Umbria, German beekeeper Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) rules his family with an iron hand, having them all involved in his beekeeping and honey producing business, regardless of age. Eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) at just 12 years-old is given the most responsibility while her three younger siblings jump to her orders.

Wolfgang’s shielding his family from the outside world has engendered resentment in Gelsomina who wants a more fulfilling life which doesn’t include beehives. While taking a break by a small lagoon they happen upon a TV crew for a popular reality show which is looking for farms that still practice old-fashioned methods, paying a hefty cash reward. Gelsomina loves the idea but convincing Wolfgang is going to be a real challenge.

The Wonders is a slow moving and subtle coming-of-age drama set against a bucolic backdrop that is in danger of disappearing from the world due to its remote location and insistence of remaining in the past. Not everyone is as hidebound as Wolfgang – a neighbouring family have a TV and allow their kids to enjoy music and fashion – so we can at least deduce that Rohrwacher isn’t decrying this traditional rural lifestyle but this isn’t quite an open celebration of it either.

Gelsomina is portrayed as something of a victim insofar as Wolfgang’s dogmatic attitude is holding her back from preparing her for the adult life she wants rather than the one Wolfgang is determined she should have. As it stands, Gelsomina is constantly referred to as the “head of the household” and is put forward whenever an official representative for the family is required.

Ironically it is this advanced maturity and keen sense of responsibility that makes Gelsomina such a strong willed girl and the right person to bring the family business into the 21st century. She has a rare affinity with the bees, is highly skilled on the practical front and a hard worker but times are hard and new health regulations mean they need to renovate their working conditions which they can’t afford.

Wolfgang’s solution is to take on another worker, in this case a silent German boy Martin (Luis Huilca) from a young offender’s home whose placement on the farm is subsidised by the home. Martin’s only audible contribution to the film is his whistling which has a significance relevance later on in his inevitable but not fully formed budding romance with Gelsomina.

Despite sounding like your average drama storyline this film isn’t plot driven, instead is a series of connected skits depicting the warts and all daily lives of the family, who are completed by the three younger sisters – Marinella (Agnese Graziani), Luna (Maris Stella Morrow) and Caterina (Eva Lea Pace Morrow) – their mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and Coco (Sabine Timoteo), who I assume is a friend or sister of Marinella’s.

The unhurried pace, absence of a direct plot and sparse visuals make for a stripped bare presentation occasionally bothered by burst of colour from the rebellious clothes the girls wear, the warm greens of the countryside and the orange hues of the honey. The dark minimalism of the dilapidated house paints a bleak juxtaposition against the vibrancy and energy of the honey making production and the lack of rewards it brings.

Similarly the scenes involving the TV show border on the surreal. The host is Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci) a Roman/Greek hybrid goddess with white plaited hair, flowing silk gowns and extravagant accessories. Presented as an ethereal figure Milly clashes with the humble, impoverished farmers even when they are dressed up in similar – and for them ridiculous looking – Roman-esque garb for the TV taping.   

There’s a faint touch of the neo-realist approach of Di Sicca present in this film in the way Rohrwacher depicts the quotidian processes of honey production and the internal struggles of the family, while the scenes featuring Belucci may have comes from a Fellini production. It’s a jarring contrast but there are two sides to this story and this is a decidedly esoteric way for Rohrwacher to tell it.

In an act which could be seen as either solidarity to the theme of treasuring old method or maybe ironic defiance, Rohrwacher chose to shoot everything on the archaic Super-16 film stock, the grainy warmth of the picture capturing the honest spirit of the old fashioned farming lifestyle. The handheld camera work makes for a naturalistic, near documentary feel but never gets too intrusive while avoiding appearing voyeuristic.

Wolfgang is a thoroughly unlikeable and vexatious character – intransigent, bullying and hopelessly ignorant to the world outside of his own anti-materialistic mindset – so credit is due to Sam Louwyck for being so frighteningly convincing in the role. All of the adults are pro-actors, including the director’s sister Alba as Angelica but this film belongs to first timer Maria Alexandra Lungu for her extraordinarily mature essaying of Gelsomina which is suffused with sufficient pre-pubescent angst and yearning for a freer life.

As a coming-of-age tale The Wonders isn’t as immediate as some in getting this point across, obscured as it is by the parable of holding out against modernism, the depiction of a youthful journey served up as part of an obtusely offbeat subplot. This may not sit well with people who like their narratives linear, direct and their points clearly made.

However, Rohrwacher is able to create some tender and magical moments for Gelsomina which should placate those seeking light in an ostensibly bleak tale, which manages to charm the audience all the same through the committed performances and curious visual charisma.

An acquired taste but nonetheless a fascinating outing.