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Cannes 2014: ‘The Wonders’ takes a soft chance at a coming-of-age tale

The Wonders

Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher

Italy/Switzerland/Germany, 2014

Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders often sets itself up as if a rural Italian Little Miss Sunshine. A dysfunctional beekeeping family live under the patriarchal reign of Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), fully contained in a proud rural lifestyle without doors, privacy, or privilege. Rohrwacher takes a standard fish-out-of-water comedy , throwing in a few moments of beauty and absurd humor, but ultimately falls short of anything other than an updated but familiar tale of adolescence.

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The film’s titlecard, humbly showing us “The Wonders”, comes on screen immediately after a brief scene of an entire family crowding a room in anticipation of little girl Marinella (Agnese Graziani) using the bathroom. It’s a kind of juxtaposition that sets the tone for the rest of the film — bleakly pastoral with a not-so-ironic sense of cheer. Such is the feeling of “The Wonders” itself: a television show discovered by Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) and the other daughters that competes farming families against each other for a cash prize. The advertisements and general production of the competition lie somewhere between B-movie camp and the lack of self-awareness of a local commercial — yet the schlocky majesty of white-haired walking mermaid Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci) is enough for Gelsomina to be convinced that this competition is her way to beauty and stardom (as well as a chance to get in close with idol Milly). The only thing standing in her way is her father’s consistent denial for perceived city-folk to judge, visit, and further interrupt his life’s passion of honey-making. Temptation does hit as a new law requires Wolfgang to improve his lab with money he doesn’t have. However, he attempt to find a solution through Martin (Luis Hulica Logrono), a petty criminal he adopts to work for the family in exchange for improving the mute young boy’s behavior. Together, they work around the farmland through a series of misadventures, adapting to quick change while maintaining their rural pride.

Rohrwacher’s elegy on change in a family plays heavily into her focus on upcoming post-adolescence in Gelsomina. It’s a thematic strength, but undesirably confusing, leaving certain characters (Martin to a significant degree) only half-built in order to dedicate more time to Gelsomina’s thoughts and ambitions. Normally, this would not pose a problem, but the film isn’t merely about her — focus is often transplanted to the satellite characters whose presence is hardly explained, except perhaps to give the family’s origin and development a sort of vague mystery. This problem of the devotion of time not only manages to confuse the narrative, but it also poses a problem for how we should feel about each of their respective developments. As characters slip in and out of the frame, little is left to explain how we should relate to Gelsomina or the protective Wolfgang, leaving their tics and annoyances in-check and unexplained.

alice-rohrwacher-le-meraviglie-is-the-italian-film-at-cannes-2014-monica-bellucciHowever, what little time we do get with each member is graced with a particular sort of well-timed tonal humor. Wolfgang doesn’t have much time or energy for sentimentality, but he does remember Gelsomina’s wish for a camel when we was younger. After a rather verbally violent scene, Gelsomina steps out and the camera pans to view her father’s ill-planned gift: a two-humped, snorting childhood wish fulfilled. As he’s put in a ridiculous get-up for the show, Wolfgang speaks in a hushed, mysterious tone, eventually to trail off as he warns the audience that the world will end soon. They’re well-executed gags,  channelled through Rohrwacher’s sense of irony and discomfort that at least makes the film pleasant to sit through.

We get the usual, though: Gelsomina confronts her first real feelings for a boy, a dysfunctional family has to work together to save themselves, and the city-country dynamic is broken down for humor. There’s a few fascinating choices, especially with Gelsomina and Martin’s TV performance, as well as the film’s intriguing arthouse coda, but The Wonders inevitably hides its style in favor of a limited substance.

— Zach Lewis


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