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July 15, 2015
The Wonders (Le Meraviglie) begins with a long establishing shot, a briefer version of which writer-director Alice Rohrwacher used in the opening of her striking debut, Corpo Celeste (2011).
From a distance we see lights winding through darkness. The viewer is not entirely sure what they’re seeing until gradually these glowing orbs become cars moving towards us in the pitch black. It’s a potent image for a film that has an air of enchantment, which speaks of outsiders, misplaced idealism and lost idylls.
The lights belong to unwelcome hunters and as they pull up, one comments on a run-down house nearby, it’s always been there, says another. Clearly this place is of no consequence to them.
However the ramshackle domicile somewhere on the border between Umbria and Tuscany has huge significance for its inhabitants: twelve-year-old Gelsomina and her family – three younger sisters, her mother, father, and Cocò, the guest who will never leave. The family is poor, scraping a living from the land, their main source of income being the ancient art of making honey.
Despite her tender years, it is Gelsomina who knows best how to handle the bees, deal with a swarm and spot pestilence. Her father, the idealistic somewhat volatile Wolfgang, relies on her and their bond is deep but in flux: whilst Gelsomina is beginning to suspect his understanding of the world is flawed, he is ribbed for producing only daughters and longs for a son.
Rohrwacher trained her actors in the art of apiculture and in these scenes there is both a sense of the profundity of nature and its disinterest. Wolfgang, blinkered by his idealism as perhaps only converts can be, has created a world for his family that is less Thoreau, more Schiller-like in its demonstration of the impossibility of man’s return to nature.
When desperately short on money, the family takes in a delinquent German boy which means that Wolfgang – a Northern European and an outsider too – not only gets another pair of hands (only his young twin daughters are exempt from the constant manual labour), he now has the son he’s been longing for.
As with Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher’s skill is to illuminate, from her young female protagonists’ viewpoint, the harsh strangeness of adult life.
Two wonderful performances from Maria Alexandra Lungu as Gelsomina and Agnese Graziani as Marinella, her younger sister, create a beautiful nuanced on-screen relationship that assists our immersion in the abstract sensuality, order and frustration of the children’s world.
Meanwhile, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is exquisite, both visually engaging and thematically significant. Against the backdrop of rough Piero della Francesca landscapes, Gelsomina’s variety of bright clothes and jackets suggests what the film’s narrative implies – that this place won’t be enough for her.
Rohrwacher’s keen, sympathetic observations bring much humour, but also a gentle surreality to the troubles of existence. This is only added to by the unexpected presence of Monica Bellucci as the good fairy presiding over a ‘Countryside Wonders’ competition to find the ‘Most Traditional Family’.
She hosts a superb and funny cavernous scene towards the end of the film. But even she is tired, exhausted by the pretence of an idyll that does not exist.
Towards the end of the film perhaps the surreal elements take over too much, so that, however beautifully constructed, they break the enchantment a little. But this is mere nitpicking.
The Wonders is a piece of truly imaginative filmmaking from an exciting cinematic voice.
Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes last year for this film, Alice Rohrwacher is one to keep a very close eye on.
The Wonders is released in UK cinemas on July 17th