London Film Festival for Verité Film Mag: Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders

   I reviewed Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher's second film, The Wonders, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival, for the now-defunct Verité Film Magazine. You can now find the review here:

A lyrical film of endless emotional generosity, The Wonders is the second, Grand Prix-winning feature from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher. A coming-of-age tale with none of the requisite moments that the label entails, it concerns a twelve-year-old girl, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who lives on a farm with her family in a dry, sparse portion of the remote Italian countryside. The quiet and dutiful eldest sister, she's her father’s golden girl.

Her father (Sam Louwyck) is the foreign-born, stern patriarch of the family, who together practice ancient beekeeping rites and produce organic honey. Sometimes he’s an insensitive tyrant, but mostly he’s a greying, comically irate man prone to shouting and wearing very small pairs of Speedos. It's his bad luck, given the hard graft of the family business, to have fathered only girls. Gelsomina helps tend to the bees and processes the honey, and she is followed, almost constantly, by her chubby, incorrigible sister, Caterina, and two chattering, dark-haired little ones, who jump in puddles and trail behind mischievously. The family live an isolated, almost out-of-time existence, and as a result, are incredibly close-knit.

One afternoon, the girls and their father stumble across a commercial being shot for a local competition named ‘The Countryside Wonders’. A glamorous TV celebrity (played by a forever elegant Monica Belluci), stars in the ad. Gelsomina is clearly bewildered and stunned by this beautiful apparition, who places a sparkly clip in her hair. With her big-city manner, poise and style, she symbolises everything that is enigmatic and sophisticated to a rural girl on the cusp of womanhood. Set up for local farmers, the competition offers a television appearance -- along with a cash prize and a luxury cruise. This is a terribly exciting proposition to Gelsomina, who has no inclination of just how out of step her family is with contemporary Italy, and how jarring the experience will be given their steady, Etruscan traditions.

“Unsparing close-ups encapsulate the trials of youth growing up within the context of a dying old world”
While the rural, antiquated setting might seem positively alien to many viewers, the universality of Gelsomina’s gawky in-between age is not. With burgeoning teen-hood, Gelsomina is beginning to lose interest in the dusty, repetitive work on the farm and developing a growing fondness for boys, particularly a delinquent foster child who is hired as a farm hand. Teenage mistakes lead to adult humiliations, all channelled through the sloe-eyed, watchful gaze of expressive young actress Maria Alexandra Lungu. She observes her surroundings with a kind of vacant surprise, as if half-seeing everything newly for the first time.

Lungu's strange stillness and Rohrwacher’s unsparing close-ups encapsulate the trials of youth in a dying old world. Accordingly, there is a growing chasm between father and daughter where it was once airtight. Spell-binding despite being a touch protracted, The Wonders redeems itself of any meandering by virtue of being so deeply affecting.


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