Reviewed by Miranda Schiller @mirandadadada
If The Wonders is a coming-of-age story, it is a very tender one. Teenager Gelsomina lives with her parents, three younger sisters, and aunt in a dilapidated farm building in rural Italy. They are a family of beekeepers, living a simple traditional life and struggling to raise the means to modernise their production room to keep up with new health and safety regulations.
They are ostensibly poor, but not suffering. The father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) is prone to outbursts of anger, but he is never cruel or violent, and he does show his daughters love. All in all, director Alice Rohrwacher avoids any sort of social romanticism and concentrates on building her characters instead. Gelsomina, played by first-time actress Alexandra Maria Lungu, is dedicated to her family. Not a rebellious teenager by any means, she is however quietly starting to doubt her future as the heiress of the beekeeping business. The chance of winning a cash prize in a delightfully ludicrous TV reality show contest for the most traditional rural family seems like a way out and a way to save the family business at the same time.
The show takes place in a grotto on a remote island and is delightfully weird and terrible, but the fascination its presenter exerts on the young girls is tangible. It is Monica Belucci dressed in a flowing white dress and a long white hairpiece fit for a woodland fairy.
Wolfgang meanwhile has his own ideas on how to save the farm, and takes on a German juvenile delinquent in a resocialisation programme. He helps with the work, and the family receive money for taking him on. Again, social clichés thankfully remain unrealised. The boy does not cause major trouble, nor does he embark on a journey of self-improvement. Instead, he shows off his fine ability to whistle, which makes for a slightly disturbing spectacle combined with Gelso’s favourite party trick of letting live bees crawl out of her mouth and across her face.
With all their faults and ambiguities, the personalities in The Wonders are loveable for their realness and their kindheartedness at the base of their clumsiness – without them being turned into caricatures of peasants. Rohrwacher makes sure in all respects not to fall into clichés. The father is a much more important figure in this story than the mother, but his unique mixture of aggression and shyness, of protectiveness of his way of life and ineptitude at interacting with the modern world goes way beyond the depiction of a stereotypical father trying to keep his children in his world of a bygone era – he, like everyone else, is a character and a personality in his own right.
If the film is a coming-of-age story, it is equally interested in the parents’ development – and not just in respect of their children growing up.
The Wonders is in cinemas Friday 17th July.