Wonders, The (2014)

Review #1,178

Director:  Alice Rohrwacher
Cast:  Alba Rohrwacher, Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Monica Bellucci
Plot:  Nothing will be the same at the end of this summer for Gelsomina and her three younger sisters.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize (Cannes).
Runtime:  110min
Rating:  PG13 for some coarse language.
International Sales:  The Match Factory

“They want to get rid of us, I'm sure.”

With the Cannes Grand Prize of the Jury to its name, The Wonders comes with high expectations.  In only her second feature, writer-director Alice Rohrwacher delivers what I feel is a remarkable film, an unexpectedly refreshing picture centering on an unusual family of beekeepers in a rural part of Italy. 

The setting, while not entirely pastoral, evokes a sense that one day this little part of Italy – its way of life – will vanish with time.  The beekeeping family with a small kitchen producing natural honey sees their space encroached by the elongating hands of modernity and celebrity.  The simple farmer's life, as it were, would soon be no more. 

The Wonders is not just a tale of inevitability, but of the dynamics of family as shaped by its patriarch.  The film sees the director drawing out superb performances from the cast, which includes her older sister Alba Rohrwacher.

With hints of physical (and maybe sexual) abuse toward Gelsomina, the oldest of his three daughters, the father comes across as strong-willed if unsettling, taking an especially keen interest in her, and almost ignoring his other two daughters.  He vehemently shapes the attitudes of his children, often leveraging on the troubling notion of gender – that of male superiority – to express discontent over the lack of work ethic and responsibility. 

Shot in a quasi-docudrama style, The Wonders is also bewitching in its portrayal of the intrusive if mystifying allure of celebrity.  Chancing upon an ethereal television shoot for a competition commercial in the woods, Gelsomina is caught up in the notion of a cash grab opportunity, perhaps being manipulated by its disguise as an art and performance show.

Director Rohrwacher brings all these elements together in a highly impressive work that is difficult to pigeonhole into any particular narrative trope.  Structurally, it also feels loose enough to chart its own path.  Despite its neorealist roots, The Wonders is not a raw and stark film to begin with.  It is dreamy, with moments of whimsy and wry humour, slightly alluding to the look and style of Ken Loach’s social realist masterpiece Kes (1970). 

I would recommend you to see Rohrwacher’s film, and if what she’s cooking next is just as good, she would really cement herself as one of Europe’s most promising female directors.

Verdict:  An unexpectedly refreshing picture about an unusual family of beekeepers told in a quasi-docudrama fashion.


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