VOD film review: The Wonders
Lungu's debut performance8
Trick with the bees9
Matthew Turner | On 16, Jul 2015
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Cast: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Monica Bellucci
Watch The Wonders online in the UK: MUBI UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
The second feature by Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, The Wonders (or Le meraviglie, if you’re a fan of original titles) is an enchanting coming-of-age tale set in rural Italy that’s at least partly inspired by elements from Rohrwacher’s own background. Maria Alexandra Lungu stars as 12 year-old Gelsomina, whose family, led by her gruff father, Wolfgang (Louwyck), scrape a living by bee-keeping in the traditional method.
One day, while her three younger sisters are swimming in the sea, Gelsomina spots a beautiful TV host (Monica Bellucci as Molly) filming a segment to camera, dressed in an elaborate costume. Instantly captivated, she discovers that Molly will be hosting a competition in the region to discover Italy’s Most Traditional Family, so she secretly fills out an entry form. Meanwhile, in order to bolster the family’s failing finances, Wolfgang takes in a German juvenile delinquent (Luis Huilca Logrono as Martin), which upsets the close bond Gelsomina shares with her father.
In other hands, the story might have focussed on the family’s reluctant entry into the competition, but Rohrwacher has other concerns. Instead, she presents an engaging portrait of a close-knit family who seem to belong to a different time. The presence of reality TV suggests a present-day setting, where her family’s way of life is dying out; a symbolic scene sees some of their bees are poisoned by the neighbouring farm’s pesticides.
First-time actress Lungu has engaging screen presence as Gelsomina and her relationship with the eldest of her younger sisters (Agnese Graziani as Marinella) is genuinely moving. Similarly, Belgian actor Louwyck brings a fiery edge to Wolfgang that adds a layer of tension, while Bellucci works wonders with what is essentially a glamorous cameo, simultaneously suggesting a mystical out-of-this-world quality and a bored actress making the best of things.
Rohrwacher’s direction is impressively naturalistic, to the point that it often feels like we’re watching a documentary. However, as befits the title, there are also moments of genuine wonder, imbuing the film with a kind of magical strangeness – witness the scene where the honey bucket overflows onto the floor of the farmhouse, or the film’s key, Buñuel-esque moment, involving Gelsomina’s party trick of allowing bees to crawl in and out of her mouth.
Rohrwacher cleverly presents the story from Gelsomina’s point-of-view, which allows for a sense of child-like wonder, as well as subtly forcing the audience to fill in some of the narrative gaps that perhaps Gelsomina doesn’t understand, such as the current state of her parents’ marriage.
That’s not to say that the film is entirely without flaws – for example, the character of Martin is frustratingly under-used, while Alba Rohrwacher (the director’s sister) is essentially side-lined as Gelsomina’s mother – but this is a bittersweet story shot with moments of genuine beauty.
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