Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Her new film The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014 and like her earlier film has some autobiographical influences.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, a well-known Italian actor), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. They don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina
The film is difficult to categorise. There are strong elements of neo-realism and also moments of something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s funny, dramatic and moving. In genre terms it’s a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity.
The honey ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who can represent the farming community in coastal Tuscany and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“. . . a film about the countryside, the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, missing male sons, animals and little people that live in the television. It’s a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
The film’s real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider. This specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet is a place where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. Though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, France, and Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to those we read about in newspapers. It isn’t a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficult to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also no longer be defined as a city person. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
Rohrwacher talks about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but it’s also worth thinking about the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy and Greece to access other EU states.