Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) is a 12 year-old head of household in a family of beekeepers. Her father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) keeps a tight watch on the business in their isolated plot of land in the Tuscan region. Two new events – the arrival of a reality TV show, and of a young boy, Martin (Luis Huilca) – change her world dramatically.
The opening of Alice Rohrwacher’s transcendent film is at once beautifully disjointed and metaphorical. A group of hunters move through the pitch-blackness only to suddenly and surprisingly come across the beekeeper’s house, secluded almost to the point of comedy.
The setup feels allegorical: the hunters are the real world, Gelsomina and company are a fiction, and the reality TV show will somehow bridge that gap. It’s not the only moment where Rohrwacher’s film feels nearly magical – a camel in the backyard, a lonely bed outside where it seems a house once was – the film alternates between sequences that seem as illusory as those represented on the reality TV show, and a realist, grainy style.
That latter sense is helped by the gorgeous 16mm photography from Hélène Louvart. Her palette features rich, but faded colors, alongside a camera that frequently searches, hesitating mid-pan. In fact, the scene immediately after the hunters’ prologue introduces us to Gelsomina and her younger sister Marinella (Agnese Graziani). The frame moves vaguely through the mostly-empty house, stalling, unsure of its destination. Bad camera operation in another film, here it adds to the wide-eyed view of the world that Gelsomina holds – one informed largely through her father and pop songs on the radio: Rohrwacher’s camera is as naïve and diffident in these moments as her protagonist.
Though often strikingly allusive and elusive, The Wonders is also an accomplishment in feel-good realism. The relationships between Gelsomina and Marinella, Wolfgang, and the taciturn, good-looking Martin are carefully drawn, and Rohrwacher turns small scenes into intimate, often funny moments: honey spilling uncontrollably onto the floor; wind pulling the covers off of bee boxes; a failed choreographed dance by the sisters.
When the family (some reluctantly) finally does join the reality show the mood becomes somber and mystical. Shot in a crowded cave and interviewed by the lovely, enigmatic host Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), Wolfgang gives a monologue worthy of a Fellini film. And indeed, Rohrwacher’s brand of magical-realism isn’t far off from the mood of Nights of Cabiria.