Competing for the Palme d’Or at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, Italian director Alice Rohrwacher’s sophomore feature, The Wonders (2014), is a gripping coming-of-age drama set amidst the bees and beauty of the Tuscan countryside one hot summer. In an old ramshackle house, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) lives with her three sisters, Caterina, Luna and Marinella, her mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), her father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and family friend Coco (Sabine Timoteo). The house is part refuge from a world her father perceives as corrupt and failing – he’s convinced humanity is going to pot – whilst also being a self-sufficient, working farm and a magical kingdom for the children.
The family keep bees and make delicious honey, eschewing pesticides and commercialism, but it’s not anarchic despot Wolfgang so much as the quietly competent and stoic Gelsomina who keeps the unit together and makes sure the work gets done. She’s the princess in waiting, but Wolfgang’s need for more cheap help to exploit and his secret yearning for a son sees him take into his care a young German boy, Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), who’s in trouble with the law. At the same time, Gelsomina becomes obsessed with a competition run by a local television programme – ‘Wonders of the Countryside’ – a cash prize and cruise up for grabs to those who most enshrine traditional values. The show is presented by Monica Bellucci’s Milly, like the fairy godmother in Cinderella offering Gelsomina a potential miracle transformation.
The Wonders is a complex and nuanced illustration of a family trying to live by their own standards – whilst only partly failing. Rohrwacher’s vision is tactful and restrained, with so much we don’t ever know. The characters’ histories are there to be guessed rather than spelled out. (How did they find themselves squatting?) Although the period isn’t entirely clear, these are the cultural heirs of the failed battles of the sixties; radicals who have retreated into a millenarian funk. Like many anarchists, Wolfgang is a dictator and a bully, but his shouting and gruffness are largely ignored by the family, who’ve got used to him and the local hunters whom he rails at to no avail. He’s an outsider in love with the land and someone whose humanitarian leanings don’t stop him from exploiting his own family by giving them dangerous work.
Also morally troubling is Wolfgang’s misuse of Martin, someone who’s so obviously damaged goods and who needs a far more stable environment than the household over which Wolfgang reigns supreme. Here the charity’s insouciance strains credibility; although in fact, far from conspiring to end their experiment in autonomy, the Italian authorities who appear in The Wonders are remarkably tolerant if not helpful forces. Meanwhile, Gelsomina’s mother is an exhausted and apparently powerless presence, threatening to leave the insufferable Wolfgang but always bowing to his latest scheme. The children are the most resilient members of the family, starting with Gelsomina, but even Marinella, the next eldest and a constantly complaining presence, has more nous about her than the adults.
Marinella has an almost magical rapport with the environment around her – as showcased by her trick of having bees crawl out of her mouth. Elsewhere, the children splash in the mud and swim in the nearby lake, still believing in fairytales even when they come in the form of the bathetic. Although not fully autobiographical – Rohrwacher is herself from the area that was filmed and, as can be gleaned from her name, is of German-Italian parentage – The Wonders is informed by a bittersweet nostalgia not only for those childhood years, but also for a radicalism hamstrung by its own contradictions. The countryside is at threat and no one seems to care except for the mad prophet Wolfgang – and he is the last person anyone will listen to. Fortunately, we know Gelsomina will always comes through.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.