Dec 25, 2014

The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014)

Alice Rohrwacher, the 31-year-old Italian filmmaker, has come to Cannes with a mesmerising coming-of-age tale: small and sweet in every good way, but alive with a power that seems to surge up from deep beneath its sun-roughened landscape.
Like Rohrwacher’s debut feature, Corpo Celeste, which played here in the Directors’ Fortnight programme three years ago, the film is heavily inspired by the director’s own childhood in the countryside between Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany. It centres on a German-Italian family of bee-keepers, and particularly 12-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest of four sisters and the notional heiress to this traditional and increasingly rare way of life.

Every day is made up of the same duties: checking the hives, retrieving the frames of comb, spinning them in a clattery and noticeably unsterile centrifuge, and watching the honey trickle thickly into a collecting bucket. When a swarm of bees goes missing, Gelsomina and her father (Sam Louwyck) find them clustering in a nearby tree, which she climbs up and shakes, knocking them down into a box in huge, disintegrating clumps. Afterwards, her father gets her to pick the stings out of his back. It’s not work for the faint of heart or thin of skin, and children should be nowhere near it. But the honey is, by all accounts, delicious.
One day, while Gelsomina and her sisters play in the sea, they find a camera crew nearby who are making an advert for a forthcoming television programme: Countryside Wonders, a joyfully tacky talent show that’s hunting for the area’s ‘most traditional family’. The hostess, played by Monica Bellucci, wears a low-cut white gown and absurd headdress, like a nature goddess, or a fairy godmother. It’s a moment of dreamy strangeness – a found Fellini tableau – and Gelsomina is transfixed.

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