The Wonders, Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature-length film, is ostensibly about a family of beekeepers in rural Tuscany struggling to make ends meet. But it’s also about fathers and daughters, reality television, idealized traditions and the loss of those ideals, with a cameo appearance by a grumpy camel.
Starring newcomer Maria Alexandra Lungu as Gelsomina, the eldest in a family of four daughters (a situation their German father, Wolfgang, gets endless grief over in their small community), The Wonders is quiet and lush, hovering between naturalism and supernaturalism. Twelve-year-old Gelsomina is the most skilled beekeeper in their operation, catching wild swarms, carting the hives to local fields, scraping down the honeycomb and keeping her watchful eye on the buckets filling with golden honey.
The family is committed to maintaining a certain type of lifestyle -- free of heavy machinery, sanitation codes or child labor laws (though Rohrwacher doesn’t shy away from underscoring the danger of shirking such constraints). But it's clear that the parents and a live-in friend have chosen this lifestyle, rather than grown up within it. They distrust the outside world. Their often pants-less father, especially, is determined to prove that the decision to leave that world was the right one. Played by Flemish actor and dancer Sam Louwyk, Wolfgang throws out an absurd platitude that seems to sum up his beliefs: “Pizzas aren’t planted.”
The trouble is, as Italian wife and mother Angelica (played by the filmmaker’s own sister, Alba Rohrwacher) points out to her husband, they’re failing. Hushed conversations behind closed doors allow Gelsomina to fully grasp her family's dire economic situation. They work hard, but it’s not enough.
Despite the family's proximity to poverty, Rohrwacher’s scenes of the countryside are bathed in golden light -- it’s no wonder Wolfgang and Angelica chose to make a life here. The time period is present, but there are none of the distractions of modernity: just the land, animals and labor. This is where Rohrwacher herself grew up, the product of a similarly cross-cultural family.
This is Gelsomina’s coming of age story, so while she carries responsibility and adult concerns, Rohrwacher also portrays her alongside her sisters, as a band of children. They hide under the covers when called to work, eat the vegetables they’re supposed to pick and splash around raucously in a rare moment of play with their father.
In that moment, they stumble across the filming of Countryside Wonders, a television show hosted by the fairy-like and incredibly glamorous figure of Milly Cantena (played by Monica Belluci). The show is to be a competition between local families pursuing the Etruscan traditions of the forebears. Gelsomina is bewitched -- by the hostess’ otherworldly beauty and the promise of a cash prize, the possible salvation of her family.
Though Wolfgang is adamantly against entering the competition -- a threat to both his authority and pride -- he decides to take in a juvenile delinquent in a police-mandated rural reeducation program for the promise of extra funds. Equally stubborn, Gelsomina signs the family up for the show anyway.
The silent, likely traumatized 14-year-old delinquent intrigues Gelsomina, but what could have become a routine story of young love never takes shape. Instead, Rohrwacher veers into the realm of magic realism, bringing in the aforementioned camel, transporting the locals to an island necropolis and dressing them up in sequined fabrics and gold lamé, like Etruscans in a Las Vegas attraction.
As The Wonders shifts from natural to increasingly surreal scenes, Gelsomina quietly transforms as well, proving that the sometimes painful process of trading in old dreams for new ones doesn’t mean that all is forever lost -- especially when you have family.
'The Wonders' opens Nov. 27 at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, Camera 3 in San Jose and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.