'The Wonders' ('Le Meraviglie'): Cannes Review

'Le Meraviglie' (The Wonders), Alice Rohrwacher (Competition)
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

The Wonders marks Italian helmer Rohrwacher's second visit to Cannes after her feature debut, Heavenly Body, premiered in Directors' Fortnight in 2011. Her latest -- one of only two films directed by women in this year's competition lineup, along with Naomi Kawase's Still the Water -- tells the story of a 14-year-old girl living in the Umbrian countryside whose secluded life is shattered by the arrival of a German ex-con. (Sales: The Match Factory)

A curiously resonant tale outside the norm affirms the importance and inherent mystery of the natural world.

Alice Rohrwacher’s second feature closely observes a family of bee-keepers who fight to preserve traditional agriculture.

Wise beyond its years, like the teenage protag Gelsomina, Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) is a wistful but no-tears swan song recounting the disappearance of traditional rural lifestyle in Italy. It’s also the story of an inexperienced country girl looking to bust out of her family’s limited horizons as bee-keepers and honey-makers, and in this it makes a perfect bookend to Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s well-received directing bow Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body), which played in the Directors Fortnight three years ago. The only Italian film competing in Cannes, and quite an atypical one at that, it should intrigue festival and art house audiences with its layers of barely-there meaning, but other viewers could find the story flimsy and the emotions scant, making it unlikely to go wide.  

The tone hovers mysteriously between dream and reality and Rohrwacher pins the film on stark and striking images, like the haunting one (well used on the film’s poster) of bees crawling over the expressionless face of a young woman. This archaic vision relates to the Etruscans, the early inhabitants of Italy in the area of Liguria. There, in a dilapidated old stone farmhouse, live Gelsomina aka Gelsi (Maria Alexandra Lungu) with her parents, her aunt and three younger sisters. Her stern German father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) is determined to keep the modern world far away from his family, but rather inevitably his little band of outsiders ends up in an anachronistic clash with the encroaching “real” world.

There’s a taste of Ermanno Olmi’s peasant classic The Tree of Wooden Clogs as well as a bit of nostalgic hippiedom in this farewell to the land, though given the odd assortment of people involved -- a German paterfamilias and the director’s real-life sister Alba Rohrwacher playing his strong-minded, French-speaking wife -- these are not descendants of local farmers, as in the Olmi film. In fact, suspicion governs their relations with their neighbors, who use pesticides on crops to lethal effect on their bees.

Lacking a son, Wolfgang is grooming his oldest daughter as heir to his bee kingdom, and Gelsi does show a certain talent for raising the little fellows. She has an otherworldly side that recalls the ancient people who originally worked the land. Lungu doesn’t make a lot of emotional connection, but inspires admiration for the way she chases fugitive bees and overcomes crises, like a honey machine that overflows while her parents are away. Taking responsibility for her sisters is another of her duties, and it seems she will never get out of the harsh farm life embraced by her loving, close-knit family.

Into their closed-off world comes Martin, a small, emotionally scarred boy who’s had scrapes with the law. The only thing he knows how to do is whistle, but he plays the part of inert catalyst for Gelsi’s final liberation. Still it’s a dangling role that needed to be taken a little further in the script.

One day, while Dad takes the girls for a swim break, Gelsi is thunderstruck by the opulent Fellini-esque vision of Monica Bellucci outfitted as sort of Folies Bergere creature in white feathers, floating in the middle of the salt flats. The audience can see she’s just an actress shooting a tacky commercial with a TV crew, and on some level so does Gelsomina, yet the magic of this apparition is so powerful it changes her life. They’re publicizing a TV contest which will prize the most traditional farmer in the region, and the girl becomes determined to participate much against her father’s wishes.

All this leads up to the final scenes on an island off the coast, where genuine and fake traditions square off. Laden with je-ne-sais-quoi mystery, the island offers the children a natural haven from whence to escape the new digital world of the comically awful television show, which is shown as so gruesomely bad it’s almost overkill on Rohrwacher’s part. There are a number of bothersome scripting incongruities in the final sequences that one could quibble with, but realism is not the point of the film anyway and viewers who have come this far will tend to overlook them.

Young Lungu is well-cast in the main role and exploits a modest touch of narcissism in some humorous song and dance numbers where she holds center stage. Playing the isolationist father who is furious at the world’s intrusion but has no way to stop the momentum of events, Flemish actor and dancer Louwyck lends aggressive-shy complexity to the relationship with his daughter.  As the mother, Alba Rohrwacher has a surprisingly small role in the story, but acquits it warmly and wisely. Bellucci squeezes a lot of fun out of her brief screen time, too.

French cinematographer Helene Louvart, who also shot Corpo celeste, boldly opts for a realistic look that doesn’t hide the ugliness of peasant life in all its poverty, cloudy skies and mud.  

Production companies: Tempesta with Rai Cinema in association with Amka Films Productions, Pola Pandora Filmproduktion, RSI, SRG SSR, ZDF, Arte
Cast: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Monica Bellucci, Alba Rohrwacher, Sabine Timoteo, Agnese Graziani, Luis Huilca Lograno, Eva Morrow, Maris Stella Morrow
Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Screenwriter:  Alice Rohrwacher
Producers: Carlo Cresto-Dina, Karl Baumgartner, Tiziana Soudani, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Emita Frigato
Costume designer: Loredana Buscemi

Editor: Marco Spoletini
Music: Piero Crucitti
Sales: Richard Lormand
No rating, 110 minutes