As someone who spends most of his day in front of computer, TV, and cell phone screens, I felt a magical connection to the slow lifestyle in Alice Rohrwacher’s beautifully simple The Wonders.
No matter how hard we try to lead a quiet life, relax without any interferences, or connect with people on a personal level, there always seems to be an obstacle that gets in our way — a text, an email, or a tweet. I think Rohrwacher knows that life’s gentle, melodic rhythms may not be easier, but they have an aura and a wonder that seems to be lacking in our cold routines.
Rohrwacher’s second feature, which won the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (second place after the Palme d’Or), in many ways is an autobiographical portrait of her childhood: she, like the protagonist Gelsomina, grew up in a small town in Italy with a German father who was a beekeeper and an Italian mother who helped keep the home.
The two through-lines in the film are the family’s struggle to preserve their rural farm, and Gelsomina’s coming-of-age story. The latter is caused by the arrival of a troubled boy who is adopted into their home; as one grows and matures, the other withers and passes away.
These two themes are connected by the kitschy reality TV show that comes to town, Countryside Wonders. The show acts as an opportunity for Gelsomina to act as a minor celebrity and participate in something beyond the mundane tasks on the farm. But this comes at a cost: the show that celebrates the contributions of farmers also depicts it as a glossy bourgeois fantasy (the competitors on the show wear ancient Roman clothing and luxurious robes) which, paradoxically, will attract tourists and end that very way of living.
Somehow, Rohrwacher manages to walk the perfect line between gritty realism and nostalgic fantasy. The beekeeping scenes burst with sights and sounds where you can almost smell the sweet warmth of the honey — at the same time never forgetting the pain and hard work that goes into it.
Shot mostly hand-held on super 16mm film, The Wonders has a look that feels marvelously nostalgic, as the grains in the image meld beautifully with the light and landscape, but it is also immediate and grounded. Also, by integrating the fantastical elements of Countryside Wonders, the film adds a layer of dreamscape in what could have been a monotonous retread of Italian neo-realism.
Although the coming-of-age aspects of the story are mildly underwhelming and derivative, the real stars of the film are not the naturalistic and amateur cast, but the Italian countryside, the farmhouse walls, and the old and unsanitary equipment — all aging, breaking, and decomposing. This is a film that for two straight hours made me forget about the notifications on my phone, and enraptured me in a world that I wish existed.
I think I’ll shut off my phone and go for a walk.