Oct 30, 2015
Alice Rohrwacher's second feature, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, is a movie about principles and how hard it is to keep them afloat in a changing world. It is also a lovely coming of age story about a young girl who is trying to blossom into her own person. Gelsomina (the astounding, Falconetti-like Maria Alexandra Lungu) is a teenage girl who lives with her beekeeper parents in rural Italy at an organic farm where they make honey. Her father is a hardworking German who is trying to live sustainably and to survive hard economic times. He has the misfortune, agriculturally speaking, of having four daughters, something the locals never stop teasing him about. He has turned Gelsomina, the oldest, into his right hand woman. She is conscientious, hardworking and efficient. But she is also growing and she is starting to bristle at his authority. He works her too hard, and even though he adores her, he is oblivious to her simple yearnings, for which he will eventually pay a bittersweet price.
Rohrwacher finds rich detail in every character. She fills this world with inner life. Through the family's daily travails, she immerses us in a rural world that is being encroached upon by suspect government schemes involving tourism and appalling Italian reality shows. For a principled hippie like the father, keeping these monstrosities at bay from his daughters and his farm is a heroic, if thankless struggle, but for Gelsomina, these invasions may provide a way out of the crunch of financial doom and into something less relentlessly taxing. They are also full of whimsy, something that is in short supply in her exacting life. She is, after all, a young girl.
Rohrwacher is a wise and mature talent. An astute director of actors and a wonderful writer, she is immune to sentimentality. Her movies are tough, yet tender. The things that happen to this family may be small potatoes to us, but for them they can mean catastrophe. Because of their self-imposed isolation, everything that comes this family's way has enormous impact, whether it is a ridiculous reality TV contest or an extra helping hand at the farm. So when they take in a young boy as part of an exchange program for juvenile delinquents, nothing huge happens, but he throws everything out of whack: Gelsomina's importance as the oldest and most favorite daughter is undermined, as her interest in the boy is piqued, and this eventually leads to her blossoming into a decision maker, going against her father's demands for the first time. Like any great Italian film, The Wonders has a wistful combination of humor and sadness, of satire and heartbreak, of toughness and grace. A lovely, intelligent film.