“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”
― Alice Munro
Alice Munro’s metaphor of the story ‘house’ is particularly illustrative of the experience of watching Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Le meraviglie).1 The film turns you into a fixture of its house, granted intimate access to observe its goings-on instead of being flung down a narrative road. As a guest you are treated with generosity, given the time and proximity to pick up on its details, to get a sense of its rhythms and overarching composition. So complete and appealing is the world of The Wonders that for the 110 minutes of the film you feel wholly displaced within its frame.
The Wonders takes place over one summer on a honey farm in the Umbrian countryside, following a family of beekeepers. Theirs is a kind of fiercely protected kingdom, ruled over by short-fused father Wolfgang (ostensibly a German played by Flemish polyglot Sam Louwyck) and overworked mother Angelica (played by Rohrwacher’s own older sister, Alba). Heir to the throne and “head of the family” is twelve-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), eldest of the four daughters. Their livelihood is under threat by strict new European regulations demanding the standardisation of their honey lab, a costly undertaking involving renovations they cannot afford. In exchange for some extra funds and labour they take in silent and troubled Martin, as part of a German government-run youth rehabilitation program. They work even harder to increase their honey production, also jeopardised by pesticides coming from the neighbouring farm which begin to kill off their bees.
Possible salvation comes in the form of a glitzy TV competition called the Village Wonders, the prize money – awarded to the “most traditional family”- more than enough to save their farm. Wolfgang holds the competition and everything it stands for in utter contempt, and won’t consider entering. However, Gelsomina desperately wants to enter and does so in secret, entranced by the glamour of its fairy godmother-esque host (in a brilliantly self-aware performance by Monica Bellucci).
Such is the basic narrative structure of The Wonders, with much of the film dedicated to an intimate portrayal of this family as they struggle to retain the fiercely-held independence of their rural existence. Gelsomina (or “Gelso” as her family calls her) acts as the central figure, at a crucial stage in her own identity-formation, where she is torn between her duty and love towards her father and determining her own desires and aspirations. Despite Gelso being the focus, I am loathe to describe The Wonders, as others have done, as a simple coming-of-age tale. It is told with an originality, delicacy and precision that defies such cliché.
One of the ways the film achieves this is through the richness of its textures and its focus on details. Honey punctuates the film in different forms. During the extraction process, it drips from a large vat into a collection bucket, which needs to be changed at regular intervals. Neglecting to do so means produce wasted, holding serious consequences. In one unforgettably viscous scene the overflow of honey covers the workroom floor, the girls and Martin using their hands, feet and whatever means possible in an attempt to clean up the honey and conceal the disaster from Wolfgang’s wrath. These kinds of intimate details feature throughout, often shown in close-ups, whether it be sunlight streaming in through a hole in the wall being “drunk” by younger sister Marinella, the backs of shoulders, the fabric of clothing, or a bee crawling out of Gelso’s mouth.
Perhaps another source of the film’s vitality is that much of it is taken from Rohrwacher’s own upbringing, herself also coming from a German-Italian beekeeping family. Despite this, Rohrwacher insists that the film, while personal, is not intended as autobiographical. Indeed, The Wonders can be seen as somewhat of a rural fantasy, housed in a realistic casing. It is a house I highly recommend you visit, in the hope that its profound beauty resides with you equally as long as it has with me.
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