Familiar in broad strokes but singular in its finer details, The Wonders has the lucid fogginess of a recurring dream. Alice Rohrwacher's agrarian drama is set on a honey farm in rural Italy and is based in part on the writer/director's own upbringing, which explains why so much of the film resonates like the echo of shared experience.
The sextet at the center of it all (mom, dad, and four girls) are a pleasing mix of sitcom quirk and unspoken melancholy. Theirs is the kind of family unit in which one sibling wakes up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, another yell-whispers at her to be quiet lest she disturb everyone else, and soon the whole clan is debating the merits of midnight crêpes. Dad has taken to sleeping on a mattress outside in nothing but his tighty-whities; the reasons for this particular nighttime habit are never explicitly stated, though it does make it easier for pops to shout at the hunters who dare encroach on his property and break the predawn silence by firing their rifles in the nearby woods.
Hearing the man's impotent rage, you instantly understand his place in the family: Nominally the patriarch, he's also the sort whose wife and children can easily get their way by ganging up on him and wearing him down. Which is exactly what happens when adolescent Gelsomina (or Gelso, for short) learns of a contest to determine which Tuscan family best embodies the vague notion of "our traditional values." In an inspired bit of casting, the costumed goddess who appears in the television ads and hosts said competition is played by Monica Bellucci, who happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Gelso is instantly in awe of her vaguely mermaid-like allure, the way young girls often are of their attractive elders. She is so different from the rustic, purely functional environs in which Gelso's lived her entire life up to this point. Bellucci's radiant master of ceremonies describes the contest as taking place "among the families who still live in the once-upon-a-time," which could also describe The Wonders — it's the kind of movie that could just as easily take place today as it could 30 years ago.
Then there are the bees. A constant background presence, they represent the family's livelihood but could also turn against them at a moment's notice. Their strangeness is enhanced greatly by Hélène Louvart's grainy, textured cinematography. Her 16 mm images have a sun-dappled, vaguely washed-out look that only enhances the feeling of having stepped into someone else's memory and not wanting to leave. If you didn't already, you'll know you're watching something special the moment Gelso calmly lets a bee crawl out of her mouth and then smiles — a sort of cinematic postcard from a time and place of Rohrwacher's own making.
As in Rohrwacher's previous feature, Corpo Celeste, the director displays an intuitive skill for directing and understanding children. (Presumably that's among the many reasons why The Wonders won the Grand Prix, or second place, at Cannes last year.) She wrangles a marvelous performance from the debuting Maria Alexandra Lungu, who portrays Gelso with the presence of a silent-era star and the sympathetic air of someone who feels like the underdog in her own life story. Gelso is at home among the unruly siblings and swarming honeybees, but also feels too big for it all. You get the sense that she'll be the first to leave their rural homestead behind and rarely look back.
Also in the film is another Rohrwacher, namely Alice's sister Alba as the family matriarch, a role loosely based on the sisters' actual mother. Rohrwacher the performer is an increasingly welcome presence in the art-house — look for her in the upcoming Sworn Virgin and Tale of Tales — and this is no exception. She's caring but firm, and even though Gelso gravitates toward her father, she never grows resentful.
As alluded to in a hauntingly beautiful final sequence, she also has a keen, bittersweet awareness that their way of life is fading away. "When I'm 60," Gelso's younger sister asks their mother seemingly out of nowhere, "will you be dead?" Mom nonchalantly responds in the affirmative and tells her daughter to get back to her potato-peeling duties. That matter-of-factness may sound harsh, but it's emblematic of both their family's low-key empathy and that of The Wonders as a whole: not honey-sweet, perhaps, but only bitter enough to make you appreciate its richness all the more.
Directed by Alice Rohrwache
Lagoon Cinema, opens Friday