The Wonders by Alice Rohrwacher (2014)

Alice Rohrwacher, as shown by her lovely first feature film, Corpo Celeste, and her latest, The Wonders, is a first-rate filmmaker and thoroughly original storyteller. Her films convey confidence in her work, ability and subject matter, a sense of real wonder for the world, and a compassion for people, especially young women.

The Wonders, while a straightforward tale, is richly layered. There is one narrative thread about this family of beekeepers. Unlike their hives, which have a queen bee and thousands of worker bees, the family has a patriarch surrounded by female worker bees – his wife, a permanent resident named Cocò, and four young daughters. As with a hive, the farm has to maintain a certain sense of equilibrium and rhythm to function and more important, to produce properly. The farm’s equilibrium is threatened by the patriarch Wolfgang’s longing to have a son (he frequently endures taunts from other men for his all-female brood) and his willingness to disrupt the fragile harmony of his household by fostering a boy with a criminal past, just to have someone “strong” in the household. Rohrwacher subtly and deftly quilts the bees’ and beekeepers’ lives in a subtle play on gender and power.

A second narrative concerns the eldest daughter, Gelsomina, who is both Wolfgang’s favorite but also his potential Judas. She is the chief beekeeper of her farm, a young woman of utter competence and grace, which allows her to master bees and household with economy. However, as a friend points out, Gelsomina is the ultimate traitor to her father, despite her unfeigned loyalty to him. She wants out of the hive of her cloistered, worker bee family—she wants to see outside and be seen outside, to work and to be recognized for it. She displays a certain knowledge and maturity about the world which some of the adults in her life do not possess. While she is an integral part of the farm life, she also understands that she is also part of the bigger world. In several particularly poignant scenes, Rohrwacher juxtaposes her attempts to connect to the outside with her father Wolfgang’s insistence on staying on the inside. A former  commune-dweller and angry idealist, he hopes to maintain a utopia where they live off the land, where his daughters are free, and the land knows no owners, no one language, and no bureaucracy.

Finally, a third (but by no means last) narrative is a classic one, told in a beautiful and original way. It is a narrative of an old agrarian Europe versus a modern, urbanized one. It remembers an idealized Europe, with its Etruscan heritage, diversity of language, and natural wonders, where the innocence of girls is matched by the virginal quality of its honey. Through the eyes of this family, we see a newer Europe, urbane and bureaucratic, with its paper forms, rules of payment, enforced silences, and superficial ideas about what it means to be “natural” and “Italian.” Rohrwacher, however, does not take sides; as with Corpo Celeste, she is interested in borders and boundaries and the interesting frictions produced therein: whether it is the border between country and city, Italian and German (and sometimes French), fathers and daughters, rich and poor, childhood and adulthood, inside and outside, reality and utopia. She is an astute and empathetic chronicler of a slice of European life and that oft-considered border between cultural traditions and progressive imperatives.

On another note, I’ve observed that many coming-of-age films, especially about young girls, are told through the framework of sexual love. In both Corpo Celeste and The Wonders Rohrwacher largely avoids this cliché, giving us more nuanced and intriguing stories about the loss of innocence. The girls in her films tend to be subjects, not objects, the full face of their agency and intent, palpable and unambiguous.

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival 2014.

Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), dir. Alice Rohrwacher, 111 min. Tempesta / Carlo Cresto –Dina Production, Rai Cinema, et al., 2014. In Italian (Vitabrese), German, and French. Now playing in select Bay Area theaters.

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