By Michael Koresky
Dir. Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, Oscilloscope Laboratories
The family at the center of Alice Rohrwacherâ€™s The Wonders buzz around in a hive of activityâ€”appropriate for a film about the owners of a honey-making ranch. Unlike cinemaâ€™s most famous beekeeping clanâ€”the disconnected souls in VĂctor Ericeâ€™s The Spirit of the Beehiveâ€”the folks here arenâ€™t placidly contemplating a world in the slow process of realignment. They donâ€™t have time for that. Told from the point of view of adolescent Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), Rohrwacherâ€™s lovingly rustic film is, like its protagonist, constantly moving and desiring. She is trying to make sense of her growing self and this strange world, specifically the agrarian homestead in rural Italy where she assists her German father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck); Italian mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the directorâ€™s sister); younger siblings Marinella and Luna; and a mysterious and combative assistant named CocĂ˛ (Sabine Timoteo). We donâ€™t learn much about their background or history; the film drops the viewer into an enclosed, self-sufficient familial microcosm with its own unspoken rules and codes, leaving us to play catch-up.
The filmâ€™s first image is of a pair of distant headlights cutting through a pitch-black night, growing ever more menacing as they approach the camera. This vehicle does not bring the filmâ€™s main characters; rather this is a representation of what we will not see, the world outside the family. These faceless, night-cloaked intruders are hunters, we learn, gearing up for their sport and disturbing the family in the wee hours of the morning. Slowly the three young girls and their parents wrangle themselves out of bed, lights from the passing cars casting occasional illumination on them, as though they themselves are being spied upon. Though these hunters remain off-screen here and for the rest of the movie, they are present in counterpoint, standing in for everything our main characters are not: mercenaries who use this region solely to destroy nature. The film is, conversely, about nurturing, both land and family.
From this opening scene Rohrwacher implies that her film will exist in a somewhat liminal space between slumber and the daily grind. This is not an aesthetically rigorous work, but it casts an undeniable spell. Despite its visual imprecision (itâ€™s not a film of elegant compositions), The Wonders speaks with the strong authorial voice of a curious and instinctive storyteller. Often the camera will scan across a space, taking in her many characters, but without a clear path or endpoint: what are we looking at or for? This is refreshing as a narrative approach, as Rohrwacher doesnâ€™t seem interested in telling us what we should be thinking; rather she lets us accompany these people from one task to the next. Thereâ€™s no fetishizing or romanticizing of work or youth, just a matter-of-fact, if narratively furtive, take on communal living and familial interaction. Shot in the Tuscan countryside where the director grew up, The Wonders is also a gentle investigation into what constitutes modern living, a question borne out in the filmâ€™s recurring references to the ancient Etruscan civilization that once existed on this land.
Through all this our adolescent witness Gelsomina moves with stealthy purpose, and young Lunguâ€™s face betrays a host of conflicted emotions, without the actress being given dialogue to express them. The drama of the film largely resides in Gelsominaâ€™s glances. Sheâ€™s clearly intrigued on some incipiently sexual level by Martin, the fourteen-year-old German delinquent the family has taken in to help work on the farm, flirting with him by showing off her one party trick: an unsettling ability to unwaveringly hold one or two honey bees in her mouth, ever so slightly parting her lips so that they crawl out and around her cheeks and eyes. Itâ€™s the filmâ€™s most scarily sensual image, and like the rest of The Wonders it offers an earthy way of getting at unspoken feelings. No one in Rohrwacherâ€™s film expresses what they really want, even though every shot practically aches with desire, every character seemingly harboring some unarticulated deep need.
Some of these desires threaten to burst to the fore after the family happens upon the nearby shooting of a commercial during a lakeside outing. Presided over by an imperious, iconic Monica Bellucci in a long white wig and Etruscan headdress, this is to be a TV spot for the regionâ€™s upcoming Countryside Wonders competition. The object of the game is to perform on television in a way that best embodies traditional Tuscan valuesâ€”the winner is to be awarded the vaguely defined prizes of a â€ścruiseâ€ť and a â€śbag of money.â€ť Gelsomina immediately wants them to enroll in the competition, but Wolfgang forbids it, evidently not wanting his family to get involved, either with the locals he clearly distrusts or these show-business outsiders. Yet Gelsomina proves to be as headstrong as her father, going behind his back and signing them up. When the program is finally shot, itâ€™s both otherworldly and low-rent, a crass amateur-hour pageant set in an echoey cave that synthesizes the filmâ€™s dual concerns of ancient and modern worlds.
If these gestures donâ€™t always cohere into a strongly articulated worldview or aesthetic, the film nevertheless gains urgency and beauty from the depiction of its setting. Rohrwacherâ€™s evidently profound, in-her-blood understanding and adoration of this particular environment is so acute that the film tends to function better in its documentary-like touches than its fancier flights. One could happily watch an entire narrative centered solely around the familyâ€™s day-to-day workâ€”images of Wolfgang and his daughters, covered head to toe in protective beekeeping suits as they shake clumps of the buzzing insects off a comb and right in the direction of a low-angle camera, are fascinating and visceral. And in a striking scene that conveys an odd natural grace, the family protects its latest harvest from a windy rainstorm by lying on top of boxed stacks of honeycombs and covering their huddled bodies with a tarpaulin. In these moments, Rohrwacher creates a world thatâ€™s magical simply for being recognizably ours.