The Wonders Dir. Alice Rohrwacher

[Oscilloscope Laboratories; 2015]

Styles: drama, coming of age, neo-neorealism
Others: Corpo Celeste, Au Hasard Balthazar, The Kid with a Bike

Growing up, my mother told me that a truly great croissant should contain just enough flour to hold together the ridiculous amount of butter used to make the finished pastry taste so good. What’s curious about this is I’m pretty sure she only ever said this to me once, and I’m nowhere near sure why I remember it so clearly. Anyway, in most circumstances, I think of plot in very much the same way — specifically with regard to filmmaking. Sure, a plot is no doubt an essential framework upon which to build a feature (and plot-driven films can be super fun), but I’ve always considered it the least exciting and also the least germane element of the medium. Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature-length film is very close to a perfect encapsulation of what I’m talking about. The Wonders doesn’t feature any major twists or turns, catharsis isn’t based upon some narrative realization, and honestly it’s fairly easy to tell what’s going to happen next. Despite and because of this, the film astounds.

Part slow, lingering exploration of rural life in Tuscany, and part naturalistic and beautifully understated coming of age story, The Wonders is one of the most exciting films I’ve seen this year — which seems a little weird to say when you think about how lolling and sleepy it is. Our main focus is Gelsomina (in a devastating introductory performance by Maria Lungu), who is doing her best to hold her family together. German ex-pats who settled in Tuscany to spend their days beekeeping and producing the tastiest honey they can while shielding their children from the presumably toxic influences of modern European society, Gelso’s parents insist on a life of poverty, purity, and adherence to the natural rhythms of the land. In her early teens and just starting to realize that her family’s broke and totally in danger of losing their apiaries, the natural conflict of the film hinges on her insistence that the family agree to be on some camp realty TV program (hosted by Monica Bellucci) to bring in some much needed cash.

While familiarity with the director’s previous work is in no way necessary to enjoy her latest film, Rohrwacher’s debut feature length, Corpo Celeste, dealt with similar themes, albeit with a religious focus. While the heroine of that film struggled with her budding sexuality and the intricacies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Gelso is forced to traverse the emotional minefield of her parents’ completely secular yet no less dogmatic insistence of some kind of artificial/natural purity. While subtle, a muted drum beat of merciless dependence on the natural rhythm of the bees suffuses Rohrwacher’s work, and the effect is at once dreamlike and disconcerting. We’re drawn into Gelsomina’s struggle chiefly because it’s one that attempts to square her burgeoning desires and inquisitiveness with the pastoral reality of her surroundings.

The Wonders is just as joyously rich as it is thoughtfully spare. Each gorgeously shot scene feels complete and at ease with itself as it bleeds seamlessly into the next. It’s a dreamy thing which bears repeated viewing, as Rohrwacher thankfully eschews exposition in deference to a more serene capture of these people who populate her story. This young director has crafted something jaw-droppingly remarkable, and there’s no reason it should be as shocking as it is that it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes (other than the fact that Cannes is such an utterly safe and consummately boring joke of a film festival at this point). This wondrous director is making the kind of film we love, honing in on the aspects of movies that make them so unique when squared with theater and the novel. Mood, atmosphere, character, and camera placement do as much to give The Wonders’ its heft as plot, dialogue, and pacing do. Seriously, Rohrwacher deserves every single accolade the cinematic world can throw her way, and we can’t wait for more.

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