In Alice Rohrwacher’s bittersweet and poetic film The Wonders time is spent with a family of farmers in rural Tuscany, with daily life seen through the eyes of 12-year-old daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest of four girls. Her father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) is a beekeeper, and it’s at the apiary that the pair bond, gathering wayward bees and moving hives together. However Wolfgang wants a son and is gently teased by other local farmers about the lack of an heir; this drives his decision to provide board for a young German boy named Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), who has been residing at a young offender’s institution. The unforthcoming Martin will provide an extra pair of hands at the farm, while in return Wolfgang will receive a fee based on paperwork he submits detailing any improvements in Martin’s attitude or behaviour.
Rohrwacher, who also wrote the screenplay, drops an almost magical figure into the family’s life in the shape of Monica Bellucci’s TV presenter Milly. Wolfgang and his girls chance upon the filming of a cheap-looking advert where Milly and several extras are gaudily dressed in Etruscan costume; they’re publicising the annual ‘Countryside Wonders’ competition, in which local artisan producers of food and drink can compete to win a cash prize, though it’s little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to attract more tourists to the area (presumably away from heavily-visited destinations like Pisa, Florence and Siena). Gelsomina enters the family’s honey against Wolfgang’s wishes and they make it to the final, a bizarre talent show that takes place on a nearby island in a necropolis.
The Wonders is most obviously about the passing of time and the onset of change. It looks like the family have lived in their cluttered farmhouse for many a year, sharing their abode with family friend Cocò (Sabine Timoteo), but financial pressures are increasing and new decrees – from the Italian government, perhaps via the EU – require them to make structural amendments to the outhouse housing their honey extractor system, building work they cannot afford; winning the competition would thus help temporarily, at least, but when you see the family’s jars of unsold honey at a local market it seems inevitable that they will have to sell up eventually. When pressed about his plans if he wins the cash prize, a neighbour and competition rival states that he’d turn his farm into a B&B, somewhat tellingly, which suggests that embracing tourism is seen by many as the way to go. When the impulsive Wolfgang buys a camel with the money he collects for looking after Martin (it’s Gelsomina’s favourite animal), much to the annoyance of wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), the writing is on the wall.
Due to the hand-me-down clothing the characters wear it’s difficult to say whether the film is set in the present day or not; although the cheesy Europop songs Gelsomina and second-oldest sister Marinella (Agnese Graziani) dance to certainly sound modern everything else looks old, and the feeling of going back in time is accentuated by Rohrwacher’s decision to use Super-16 film stock (if I had to guess I’d say this is supposed to be the 1980s, but I’m not sure). As pointed out in many reviews there’s a certain way of life being shown and celebrated here that is steadfastly anti-modern, the beautiful shots by cinematographer Hélène Louvart that end this film furthering the suggestion that the end may be nigh. A flustered Wolfgang confirms as much in a roundabout way when Milly tries to interview him on live TV, mumbling about the end of the world. It’s one of the stranger moments in a film that contains several.
Yet this isn’t a piece that struggles under the weight of doom and gloom: it’s a light (but not simple) film and although the work on the farm looks relentless and tough (particularly when the weather takes a turn for the worse), the family’s lifestyle still looks idyllic and attractive. There’s also a gentle streak of playful humour throughout The Wonders: I repeatedly chuckled at the antics of the youngest daughters of the family, who are not quite of an age where they can help out and instead busy themselves with activities like splashing in puddles, screaming at the confused camel or locking Wolfgang out of his truck. And I really have to salute any filmmaker who can wring this much tension out of the regular changing of a bucket before it overflows, which is a brilliant way of encapsulating a child’s approach to new-found responsibility.The Wonders is a fine coming-of-age story, a beautifully-shot tale of a rural family’s struggles, and yet there’s also something indefinably ‘other’ about it that ensures it lingers in your thoughts afterwards.
Directed by: Alice Rohrwacher.
Written by: Alice Rohrwacher.
Starring: Alexandra Maria Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Agnese Graziani, Sabine Timoteo, Monica Bellucci.
Cinematography: Hélène Louvart.
Editing: Marco Spoletini.
Music: Piero Crucitti.
Running Time: 111 minutes.