Review: THE WONDERS, A Poetic Realist Portrait Of Painful Adolescence
Gone is the Italy of opulence and grandeur celebrated in last year's Cannes breakout, The Great Beauty. The rural countryside -- a point where Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria meet -- depicted in The Wonders is both gritty and austere, a land that gives and takes in return. For that matter, so do the people who populate it.
Fourteen-year-old Gelsomina is the only one who gets through to her father, a severe German transplant named Wolfgang. Though harsh and quick to anger, he's not a bad man. Rather, he's something like a bee himself: spinning about wildly, trying to do good, oblivious to the pain he can inflict. As eldest child, she is heir both to his expertise in beekeeping and his fervency in doing so. She shares the workload with him, and together they toil day and night making honey. But she does not share her father's solemn restraint. Wolfgang makes the honey, but never tastes it. For him the work is the reward, where for Gelsomina some recognition wouldn't hurt as well.
That hunger for approval -- and the need for the quick cash reward, as the family is about to lose the house -- leads her to sign the family up for a local TV contest highlighting local products. The contest is called 'The Wonders of the Land" (it sounds better in Italian, clearly) and the idea of 'the land', and that which springs from it, is a common theme in this work.
Gelsomina and family are paradoxical, at once farmers wedded to the land and migrants recently acclimated to it. The use of new pesticides, and the ongoing colony collapses are ruining their business, racking them with debts. The land giveth, and the land taketh. In her mind, winning the contest will help stop the bleeding. Though preparing for, participating in and then the aftermath of the TV contest supplies the light narrative backbone for the film, it is ultimately more interested in just fleshing out its world than in forcing any story.
The film has many autobiographical elements. Director Alice Rohrwacher herself is of German-Italian background, also grew up on a bee farm, and cast her sister Alba to play the mom. In a nod to her youth, and to underline this family's throwback nature, the film's time period remains intentionally unclear. Apart from a few oblique references to EU regulations and some music choices reflective of more contemporary tastes, there is nothing that dates the film in the 21st century. All the machinery, clothing and design are what you could call modern timeless, and there is not one piece of technology onscreen. The retro, 16mm film stock Rohrwacher shot the film on pushes the issue further.
Everything in the film has that earthy feel, tuned down and robbed of luxury. That includes the role played by Monica Bellucci. Look, Monica Bellucci is always going to be Monica Bellucci. No amount of grime is ever going to tame her megawatt beauty, dim her movie star aura. But the role she plays here, as the host of the cheesy pageant, is a canny bit of casting. She's not a film star, just a somewhat past-her-prime local TV host, but that makes her the more potent a figure. She's ethereal but native, elegant and tacky at the same time. Like the honey, she too is a product of 'the land'; proof that for all it takes, it is still able to produce wonders.
Review originally published during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, October 30.