by Lee Purvey
The coming of age story, as much as any Western subgenre, tends to work off a pretty limited tonal palette. Whether it’s the accessible black-sheep-makes-good trajectories of most mainstream offerings (Almost Famous, The Breakfast Club) or the slightly headier tack of independent exercises in exultance like Boyhood and The Tree of Life, the coming of age flick can usually be counted on for at least one thing, and that’s catharsis. The mode of delivery may vary -- from rote moral resolution to the more nebulous manipulation of nostalgia and mood used by Linklater and Malick -- but the guarantee of the kind of seismic emotions one tends to associate with our bodies’ glandular heyday stays pretty much the same. Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is the exception to this rule, exchanging the conventions of independent cinema’s least experimental genre for a much subtler mission: the meticulous documentation of the shifting moods, hopes, desires, and grudges contained in the day-to-day existence of a single family, as their eldest toes the line of womanhood.
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Producers: Karl "Baumi" Baumgartner, Carlo Cresto-Dina, Tiziana Soudani, Michael Weber
Writer: Alice Rohrwacher
Cinematographer: Hélène Louvart
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Music: Piero Crucitti
Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Sabine Timoteo, Agnese Graziani, Monica Bellucci
Premiere: May 18, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 30, 2015
US Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
The family in question sits somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and Napoleon Dynamite, equal parts wholesome and absurdist. Entrenched in the Italian countryside, among the ruins of the Etruscan civilization, they are a household of beekeepers, attempting to survive the encroachment of modern European life and the increasing regulation of the food industry.
The opening sequence establishes both the film’s intimate scale and the sense of intrusion that permeates its story, as a pack of headlights emerge from pitch black countryside, eventually discharging men with rifles and flashlights -- out on an early morning hunt. Inside the decrepit stone farmhouse the hunters stand next to, an all-female congregation gradually forms around a small girl squatting on a toilet, shyly awaiting the release of her bowels. Of this gathering, the 12-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) soon emerges as the story’s focal point and bridge between generations, her tentative expeditions into adulthood metonymic of the inevitable changes facing them all.
In a cavelike chamber set apart from this intergenerational sisterhood lies the trollish patriarch of this house full of women. Gelsomina’s father Wolfgang (a foreigner to Italy played by Belgian actor Sam Louwyck) seems to permanently reside on the near side of tantrum, his buffoonish rage as much of a constant in this family’s life as the buzzing of the bees they tend for a living. Storming around the countryside in his underpants, the balding, scowling Wolfgang is the tenuous monarch of this white trash hippie kingdom, tyrannical with his wife and children but quickly reduced to puzzled bashfulness by the teasing of other local men or the frank gaze of the television crew that’s been shooting around town. Rohrwacher never means to villainize her leading male, however, who is, after all, dealing with a very real threat to his and his family’s livelihood. Indeed, Wolfgang’s ludditic antagonism is regularly matched by genuine -- if equally clueless -- gestures of kindness (even in the face of mounting financial threat, he buys the family a camel, a creature Gelsomina had loved as a small girl).
The appearance of the crew of Village Wonders -- a nostalgia-exploiting reality program trading in the broadest caricatures of Italy’s many rural localities -- roughly coincides with the arrival of a German boy, Martin (Luis Huilca), placed with Gelsomina’s family by a foster service. Looking for free labor and compensation from the agency, Wolfgang seems to have found an easy solution to his family’s troubles, but when a tentative romance begins to develop between Martin (silent throughout the film) and Gelsomina, he must confront the reality of his first-born’s imminent entry into adult life. Meanwhile, Gelsomina sees Village Wonders as a path to quick cash -- and perhaps a chance at a life bigger than their tiny township -- secretly signing up the family as contestants.
Rohrwacher and cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Pina) perfectly capture that suffocating feeling of early adolescence: when a parent’s entirely benign gaze can feel like surveillance, their most innocuous question an accusation. With the camera hovering around Gelsomina’s ears like an insect and Wolfgang’s omnipresent bellow drifting from offscreen into every nook and cranny of the Mediterranean farmhouse, we feel we cannot escape this claustrophobic domestic scene any more than its eldest daughter.
Expertly staged and wonderfully acted, The Wonders is a testament to the power of the autobiographical. So many of the details here -- second-eldest sister Marinella (Agnese Graziani) drinking from the rays of sun shining through a barn window, Gelsomina letting bees play in and out of her lips -- ring so true, the knowledge of parallels between Gelsomina and Rohrwacher (who grew up in the Umbria region, part of a family of beekeepers) does not come as a surprise. In general, Rohrwacher rejects the cinematic shorthand too frequently found in the genre: Gelsomina’s first romance is never supposed to carry any sort of catharsis, nor does the family’s inevitable appearance on Village Wonders deliver the talent show triumph of, say, a Little Miss Sunshine or About a Boy. The director’s most impressive feat here is simply trusting her story, refusing to imbue the quotidian particulars of her dysfunctional family with the fabricated gravity that suggests a happy ending. There is happiness here, as well as sadness. Such are the constants of life. But in the purest fidelity to its adolescent theme, The Wonders only paints a beginning.