Review: The Wonders (Rohrwacher, 2014) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society


The star of this family drama is undeniably newcomer Maria Alexandra Lungu, who plays Gelsomina, the eldest of four daughters in a beekeeping household living in Tuscany, Italy. Barely adolescent, Gelsomina is her father Wolfgang’s (Sam Louwyck) most capable assistant, which is no mean feat considering his exacting standards. But her desire to please him–so poignantly naked–is tested when a young rival for her father’s respect arrives at the family’s doorstep. Martin (Luis Huilca), a juvenile delinquent, has come from Germany to be “rehabilitated” through a program Wolfgang signed up for without his wife’s knowledge (or anyone else’s, for that matter). In exchange for room, board, and a healthy environment, the farm receives financial compensation and free labor. Though Wolfgang’s main interest in Martin is at first fiduciary, Gelsomina gradually begins to feel eclipsed as her father’s desire for a son becomes more and more apparent.

Meanwhile, Gelsomina cultivates her own secret. A popular TV show hoping to promote local agricultural enterprises is hosting a competition called “The Countryside Wonders.” Against her father’s knowledge and wishes, Gelsomina submits an application for their honey operation and is accepted. When her father discovers her insubordination, he is furious. But where Wolfgang sees gimmickry and shallowness, the young girl finds beauty and grandeur, particularly in the show’s sophisticated hostess (played by Monica Bellucci). And, feeling replaced by Martin in her father’s affections, Gelsomina’s defiance only grows.

In the semi-autobiographical Wonders, writer and director Alice Rohrwacher presents a nuanced picture of family. Some might call Wolfgang tyrannical, others simply stern. What complicates him are his two opposing compulsions: one for freedom–defying the prison of convention, e.g., sleeping beneath the stars, going barefoot–and one for control, such that the aforementioned free-spiritedness might feel to his family forced, dictated. Is this oppression or passion? Most likely both. That we can’t tell (or that we might disagree) makes him real and full and interesting, as are Gelsomina, her mother Angelica, her sisters–the whole wild pack of them.

It’s hard to believe that The Wonders is only Rohrwacher’s second narrative feature (she has also made documentaries). Its accolades include the Cannes Grand Prix, the festival’s second most prestigious award after the Palme d’Or. Her sister Alba, who plays Angelica in the film, is also the accomplished actress of Sworn Virgin, the 2015 SFIFF winner, as well as dozens of other films.

And yet, I can’t help but think that The Wonders, while commendable, is another film that feels rather forgettable. Nothing about it sticks. In the end, do we watch movies because we want to be grabbed? Or, with cinema in its (roughly) thirteenth decade, are we seeking something else, or many things at different times, or some things all at once?