When Italian filmmaker, Alice Rohrwacher, came to the stage to collect the Grand Prize of the Jury, for Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) at Cannes in 2014, I had little clue who she was. And being in the United Kingdom, it was some time before I actually got to see the film for myself.
The Wonders is quite simply, a film like no other. It grew on me over the months since I first viewed it, I mean, I certainly didn’t love it then as I do now. And the jury at Cannes only needed one sitting to make up their minds.
The Wonders is set in the rural landscape of Italy. A kind of Italy we do not see a lot on film. Bit-characters, in the film’s opening, spot the secluded house in the middle of nowhere. And here is where the family of the story live. Overcome with poverty, but resilience in sack-loads, the gorgeous relic of a home is anything but from the modern world. Where you can’t poo in peace (no door to the bathroom, hence, no lock). Gunshots are heard from afar – hunters – that angers the father.
Wolfgang (an edgy, excellent Sam Louwyck), is generally a perturbed man. Carries the weight of their troubles, or much of them, on his brittle shoulders, but roars like a lion in frustration of it. The mother, Angelica (the terrific Alba Rohrwacher, Alice’s sister), is a much calmer, refined presence – keeping her dismay somewhat under wraps. The ambiance of this family’s dynamics is both, simplistic, and extraordinary. Alice Rohrwacher has clearly worked hard to bring this humble bunch to the screen, with such immaculate depth.
Gelsomina (star of the show, Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest of the four girls, is also a huge contributor to the farm’s upkeep. There’s grafting to be done, farming, and what appears to be the main source of income – the beekeeping. There are quaint little scenes of Gelsomina taking stings out of her father’s back; scooping bees from a tree into a box like they were berries. The everyday stuff, to them.
Gelsomina has an familiar affiliation with the bees, too. Able to pick them up as though pets, and allow them to crawl from her mouth and across her face. It’s fascinating to see. Director Rohrwacher admitted there were many victims of bee stings during the shoot, harnessing hr ever-lasting gratitude for those that helped make The Wonders.
The bees are essential to their well-being. So, it is of huge concern when many of the bees are found dead. Wolfgang inquires with another local farmer, what has been sprayed in the fields. I mean, its a frantic way to live. Even in the pride of their duties, they have to climb atop boxed bee hives to stop the lids blowing off during a small storm. Then taking shelter under the hive covers.
The scenery of The Wonders is gorgeous. The orange glow of the sun, across the muddy, dusty lands. And even the run-down farm dwellings have a rustic, comforting feel. Not forgetting this is a film about children, too, there are warm scenes of make-believe – like pretending to drink the light that seeps in through cracks in the wall. In the local village, life is very different. They have TVs, the boys ride around on their own motorbikes.
The title of the film can amplify many aspects of this fine feature. When asked to keep the noise down during a shore-side stroll, they discover a video shoot. This is a truly special event for such an unprivileged family. Yet the dad strolls around among the film crew in his underpants, shouting of his little ones. When the shoot takes a break, a woman dressed almost mythical appears before the girls. “Your hair is like sea foam.” one of them says in awe at the woman’s wavy white hair.
She’s the host of this unique TV show. The Countryside Wonder competition, looking for farmers who have their own produce. And if chosen, they get to go to the island with a chance to win a handsome cash prize. The father, of course, the dad doesn’t believe in it – what, beauty, embellishing what is around you, striving for a better life?
Notably, perhaps, Wolfgang does not want his eldest daughter, Gelsomina, to grow up, think for herself, leave the nest even. She’s is a smart girl, and her dad trying to pull the wool over her eyes, is purely a wind-up to her. Gelsomina applies for the contest in secret, regardless.
When a 14 year-old boy is assigned to stay with them, and help on the farm, the family’s balance is tilted somewhat. Looking to be reformed following a string of run-ins with the law, Martin draws differing views. The father sees the muscle, a helping hand they need; the mother, whose head is not in the clouds, sees potential danger – they don’t know him. Nonetheless, they will be paid for the service, once they submit a report on Martin’s behavior. He says little, nothing at first, but impresses the family with his whistling.
The workload and pressure, get to Gelsomina as the days roll by. At one point she snaps at a sibling, not long before one sister injures her hand in one of the harvesting machines. Things get worse while at the hospital, when Martin has not changed the bucket (in which the honey drips into). They rush back from the hospital to find extracted honey all across the floor – “Dad will kill us!”
Gelsomina is on her hands and knees, slipping and sliding, scooping it up with her hands. The other girls follow suit. Not great timing, then, for the Countryside Wonders rep to turn up to check on the production standards. They clear up in time, and there is something incredibly heroic about Gelsomina’s impulsive dedication. And its a credit to Rohrwacher’s writing, too.
Angelica returns home, flabbergasted. Not so much by the bedlam the kids have been through, but unleashing an anger towards Wolfgang and his poor handling of their money. Exclaiming she wants to finally leave him, the money situation is dire. And when the revelation arises of the contest, the father is furious to say the least. The idiot has gone and bought a camel, defying an earlier promise to Gelsomina, that may have been mistaken for a joke. He has no room for maneuver.
During the show’s shoot, in an extravagantly lit, festively decorated, cave of sorts, Wolfgang is like a deer in headlights. To try and salvage their chances, Gelsomina performs her bee trick, while Martin whistles beside her. It’s an unlikely moment of magic, gaining the respect of the show people and other contestants. The Wonders succeeds in sprinkling the drama with such flashes of humanity.
Maybe they are out of their depth here, or this was just not their time. Hidden away in the Italian countryside all this time, the outside world might feel very far away. The excitement of a competition, or more so, the unique opportunity for some sort of wealth or appreciation. Instead there’s a whiff of humiliation, and a crash straight back to reality. But we already have love for the family, all of them wonders for sure.