A strong lead performance drives this dreamy yet authentic view of a dying way of living, as seen through pre-teen eyes.
There’s a reality TV show for everything – and, increasingly, a method of viewing widespread fascination with witnessing the televised lives of others as a statement on everything contemporary existence is and is not. In The Wonders (Le meraviglie), the program in question seeks out the most traditional farmer in regional Italy, calling attention not only to a dying way of living, but to those shaped by their connection to the land and to each other rather than by mass entertainment and modern conveniences.
Gelsomina (debutant Maria Alexandra Lungu) inhabits that kind of modest, stripped-back life, the eldest of four daughters to German beekeeper, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears); however soon, it is the seeming allure of the television contest that she covets. Her days in and around their rundown farmhouse are a routine of preparation and cultivation, of hives and honey, and of the kind of work that seems beyond a girl not yet a teenager, let alone an adult. Then she stumbles upon the filming of an advertisement for Countryside Wonders starring Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci, Rhino Season) – an actress and TV host in an outlandish platinum wig to most, but an entrancing figure to a child who knows no better.
A chasm opens up between the reality of her bohemian lifestyle and the fantasy of winning a nationally broadcast competition, though writer/director Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo celeste) doesn’t concern her sophomore feature with stressing the contrast in obvious ways. Instead, she lingers on daily minutiae involving the family, as involving as it is ordinary. Wolfgang stubbornly disapproves of the very idea of participating, even with a cash prize on offer. Gelsomina’s mother, Angelica (A Street in Palermo’s Alba Rohrwacher, the filmmaker’s sister), worries about new laws requiring their bee-keeping operation to comply with certain standards, as well the finances needed to do so. To assist with the workload, a near-silent German juvenile delinquent, Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), comes to stay.
Accordingly, Rohrwacher uses her central dramatic catalyst to not only highlight the vast difference between normality for most and for her characters, but to chart the change within The Wonders’ adolescent protagonist. Gelsomina is strongly written, enacting a story resembling the director’s own upbringing, and sparking with quiet rebellion when an alternative to her rustic domesticity is glimpsed. In a film favouring visuals over dialogue, much is made of – and hinges upon – the way she sees the world, and her demeanour. Here, the filmmaker relies heavily upon the mesmerising Lungu, who makes plain the blossoming maturity and understanding simmering within in a patient and precise yet nuanced and naturalistic performance from a first-time actress.
Of course, the cast isn’t the only tool in Rohrwacher’s arsenal, nor in her endeavours to enliven her portrait of a family of outsiders caught out of time and exposed as so as much through external influences as an internal awakening. It has almost become a cliché to style coming-of-age tales to resemble waking dreams with softly shot frames and warm colour palettes; however shooting on 16mm and coveting grainy texture in the imagery, the filmmaker makes the rural surroundings both idealised and grittily realistic. Again, juxtaposition rears its head, between the erratic and imperfect depiction of the feature’s scrappily, messily authentic bulk, and the shinier, sleeker treatment afforded the interjections of the comically terrible Countryside Wonders. The disappointment for everyone, on-screen and off, comes in their combination; in the narrative, the illusory can only prove just that, but in constructing the feature, more meaning emanates from the build up than from the too-convenient climax and culmination.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
The Wonders (Le meraviglie)
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Italy | Switzerland | Germany, 2014, 110 mins
Perth International Arts Festival – Lotterywest Film Program
24 November 2014 – 12 April 2015
The Wonders season: 9 – 15 March