Directed by Alice Rohrwacher
Opens October 30
Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen in a while, a marvel (appropriately enough) of mystery, beauty, intimacy, easy charm, but also economy, as it introduces the film’s beekeeping family. Cars appear as will-o’-wisps in total darkness, their spotlights passing over children asleep in a stone farmhouse; one of these youngsters has to go to the toilet, leading everyone else to wake up so as to provide maximum embarrassment with a cacophony of nosiness and whines; the final scene winds down with the all-important changing of the bucket in the honey room by the eldest, Gelsomina, following dad’s wishes.
Her name could belong to the heroine of a fairy tale, but Gelsomina’s family nurtures a grounded isolation in the rough but idyllic Italian countryside, as if squatting in a modern age, the area identified by the writer-director in publicity notes with charming precision as lying “between the central regions of Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany.” Poppa-bear dad (hairy, bellowing Sam Louwick) keeps the girls in line, along with his wife (Rohrwacher’s sister, Alba) and an aunt-or-something—all while they adhere to some lefty memory of his about agricultural independence, even as he takes in an orphan boy in exchange for a state stipend. Amidst the daily fuss of family, Gelsomina (Alexandra Lungu) is obedient but the picture of quiet yearning, ultimately stepping out by applying to a kitschy TV program that showcases rural artisans with costumes and a harvest-goddess host (Monica Bellucci).
Rohrwacher has a deft way of sidling into moments of drama, aided by DP Helene Louvart’s extraordinary work, which gives actors room to breathe and images a sense of living color (shot in 16mm). Gelsomina’s inchoate understanding that she needs something more dovetails with the sense that her father’s business methods are running to the end of their shelf life, though he’s capable of a defiant fantastical gesture in the film’s increasingly dreamy final third. Rohrwacher’s 2011 debut feature, Corpo Celeste, which I saw—or was privy to—in a half-empty New York Film Festival screening, staged its own wonders with similar understatement. In an interview last year, the filmmaker described herself as thinking “Where am I” in a shot; in The Wonders, you are most certainly here, in a way that should be cherished.