PRINT November 2015


Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders

Alice Rohrwacher, Le meraviglie (The Wonders), 2014, Super 16 transferred to digital video, color, sound, 111 minutes. Center: Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci).

WRITER-DIRECTOR Alice Rohrwacher’s oeuvre to date may be small, but she has quickly established herself as one of the finest chroniclers of girlhood in two uncommonly graceful and astute coming-of-age stories. Her feature debut, Corpo Celeste (2011), tracks not-quite-thirteen Marta (played by the unaffected yet confident nonprofessional Yle Vianello), whose family has returned to Italy after a decade living in Switzerland, as she navigates not only a new town and a changing body but also the confounding lessons promulgated in her confirmation class. The scenario allows for several wry observations on the absurdity and increasing irrelevance of the Catholic Church—a point pushed a little too hard on occasion, via freighted symbols such as an enormous crucifix floating in the sea. More rooted in the material world, though still making space for the fantastical, Rohrwacher’s latest film betrays no such missteps.

Set in the Tuscan countryside, The Wonders—the title is a direct translation of the Italian original, Le meraviglie—centers on a family that recalls the director’s own. The movie’s pubescent protagonist, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu, another exceptional first-timer), is, like Rohrwacher, the daughter of a German father and an Italian mother who make their living as beekeepers, as the filmmaker’s father did during her childhood. (In a further bit of oblique backstory fidelity, the mom in The Wonders is played by Rohrwacher’s elder sister, Alba.) Gelsomina, the oldest of four girls, is the most stalwart member of a chaotic household, one frequently at the mercy of short-fused paterfamilias Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), who is prone to raving and averse to wearing pants. She is also the hardest-working honey harvester; indeed, Cocò (Sabine Timoteo), a woman who lives with this clan in its commune-like sprawl and mess but whose precise relationship to the kin remains undefined, considers Gelsomina the “head of the family.”

It is against these undue burdens that the dutiful adolescent slowly starts to chafe, her “rebellion” sublimated into an ardent desire for her family to appear, against Wolfgang’s strenuous objections, on Countryside Wonders, a tacky reality show, filmed in a cave, that rewards purveyors of artisanal Tuscan goods. Gelsomina’s introduction to this small-screen spectacle—a TV is never spotted in her family’s house—typifies Rohrwacher’s talent for staging the delightfully incongruous: After spending a day splashing at a lake, the big sister, her siblings, and their father stumble across the shooting of a promo spot for the show, featuring its host, Milly Catena—played by Euro-superstar Monica Bellucci, who sports Cicciolina-esque fake blond tresses under an elaborate ersatz Etruscan headdress.

As she did the folly of the Catholic Church in Corpo Celeste, Rohrwacher gently points out, more assuredly this time, the preposterousness of Countryside Wonders and its fetishizing of rural authenticity. Certainly the high price Wolfgang’s family pays for the ostensible virtuousness of its back-to-the-land existence—namely, poverty and social isolation—belies the show’s giddy celebration of all things pastoral. Gelsomina’s fascination with the otherworldly Milly, then, makes perfect sense: This outlandishly costumed TV hostess is, to the overworked girl, an enchanting vision of serenity, the opposite of a tyrannical father who subjects his family to an increasingly mad version of what a “pure” life should be. “When he’s not here, we can breathe, right?” Gelsomina’s mother—who may have once shared her spouse’s commitment to an off-the-grid existence but now seems increasingly exasperated by it—asks her brood during one of Wolfgang’s absences. Gelsomina learns not only to take up more oxygen in this claustrophobic domain (one in which a sister’s late-night trip to the bathroom becomes an invitation for nearly everyone else to crowd into the WC) but to adapt to the bewildering caprices of Wolfgang—particularly after he decides to take in a felonious fourteen-year-old boy, a fateful move that will motor the movie’s final act.

Gelsomina, like all teenagers, no matter how great their sense of filial responsibility, may already be thinking about her escape, as suggested by a small sticker on her bedroom wall that reads FLORIDA. More immediately, though, she takes enormous pride in her apiary work, changing the frames of the beehives and wrangling swarms from tree limbs—treacherous labor that Lungu herself actually performed. The detailed attention paid to this terrifying toil evinces Rohrwacher’s meticulousness, as does the fact that she shot The Wonders on Super 16, in keeping with the predigital world the movie so affectionately, if ambivalently, depicts. That Rohrwacher insisted on celluloid for both her features (Corpo Celeste was also shot in Super 16; Hélène Louvart served as cinematographer for both) makes them appear temporally unmoored, quite pleasingly so. This quality is further enhanced in The Wonders by the total absence of laptops and cell phones; the recurrence of the Italo-hit “T’appartengo” (I Belong to You) hints that the movie may take place in the mid-1990s, when that Ambra Angiolini song charted. Yet however historically unplaceable The Wonders may ultimately be, its young heroine is timeless.

The Wonders opens in select cities on October 30.

Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.