Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), fierce, bearded, his long hair thinning, not fat but no longer taut, lives with Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), appropriately named given her physicality and demeanor, and their four young daughters, in a ramshackle stone and brick house “that’s always been there.”
The parents in director and writer Alice Rohrwacher’s mesmerizing second feature, “The Wonders” (which won the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival) are not wealthy urban residents affecting shabby pastoral chic on weekends. They’ve retreated to a remote area of the Italian countryside (between the regions of Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany, where Rohrwach grew up), to shield their children from what they view as the corruption and decline of the cities and civilization.
Wolfgang (with his apocalyptic worldview) and Angelica seek a purer life, earning their living keeping bees, and striving for self-sufficiency, raise sheep and have a large vegetable garden. Bodies are not kept secret–Wolfgang and Angelica are often only wearing underwear and welcome their children into their bed.
Gelsomina (Alexandra Lungu) the eldest, a quiet and watchful adolescent (with a Modigliani face), has a close relationship with her father who recognizes that she is the superior beekeeper and relies (too heavily) on her skills.
After a day of working with Gelsomina and his second daughter, Marinella (who’s slightly chubby and easily distracted) at the hives, removing the honey and recapturing a swarm, Wolfgang takes his daughters–the two youngest, Luna and Caterina, appear almost wild–to swim in a nearby turquoise lake. When a crew member from a TV show appears, asking them to be quiet, Wolfgang replies, “My daughters are free,” but the five are curious and follow the PA back to the set.
Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), the beautiful hostess of a popular reality TV competition “Countryside Pleasures,” dressed in a kitschy white costume that evokes both Glinda the Good Witch of the North and a mermaid, is describing the local people as the camera rolls. She says, not entirely joking, that her newest farmer contestants, presenting their local products, will be from families “who live like in prehistoric times,” before tactfully offering, “like in once upon a time.”
Wolfgang is annoyed at the intrusion, always vigilant against “rich tourists (who) will come and buy everything…push us out” and uninterested in winning the “Countryside Pleasures” prize, described by Milly in the promo as a “bag of money” and a cruise. But Gelsomina is entranced when Milly gives her a flyer with the rules for entering the TV contest and a “jewel” from her long white hair (wig), which the sisters liken to sea foam. It’s the beginning of Gelsomina’s search for her place in the world and the possibility of abandoning her rural life, despite its small wonders (like the beam of light falling into the barn that she tells Marinella to “drink”).
Other intrusions disturb the family: a notice from the health department specifying strict code requirements for their honey production laboratory; the arrival of a silent, troubled German boy, placed at the farm to learn and work, his last chance before being shipped to juvy; Marinella suffers a deep cut working with the honey centrifuge; and Gelsomina’s secret entry to “Countryside Pleasures” secures the family and their luminous honey a place on Milly’s show, shot on location on the lake’s island.
Using beautiful camera movements in the powerful and disturbing final sequence, Rohrwacher indicates the impermanence of human choice and yearning.
Marvelously, Rohrwacher did not use CGI making The Wonders.” She says, “I know bees very well and I worked for a while in honey production. I adore bees, even if it was
not easy to convince the industry insurance companies that nothing bad would happen during the shoot. I insisted on using only real bees in the film…I wanted to capture the feeling of the materia and also of the actors working with real bee hives and swarms. The only way to accomplish this was to do many tests. I remember that the parents of Alexandra Lungu (who plays Gelsomina) were very happy: they said that if the film didn’t work out, at least their daughter learned a real skill and could become a beekeeper!”
“The Wonders” will open on Friday, October 30 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a national rollout.