When we first meet the family at the center of Alice Rohrwacher’s film The Wonders, three little girls are awakened by a party of hunters with rifles and dogs. “There’s a house over here,” says one. “It’s always been there” replies the other. Indeed. This is a going to be a timeless journey embracing both past and present, family and history. The ancient structure houses Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), his wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister) and three young daughters (the youngest two are also sisters, Eva Lea Pace Morrow as Caterina, and little Stella Morrow as Luna). A fifth woman, a family friend named Cocò (Sabine Timoteo), also lives with them. Their sustenance living comes from beekeeping.
Squatting in an ancient stone building in the Tuscan countryside, life is primitive, their farmhouse a relic of the past. The family works hard scraping beehive honeycombs into large vats that process the honey. Dad is a stern and humorless taskmaster surrounded by women whose emotional needs keep him on the defensive. The dutiful eldest daughter, Gelsomina (first-time actress Maria Alexandra Lungu), is beginning to come of age and to question the future of this hardscrabble life. From a distance, this mystical mini-kingdom holds a certain romantic fascination—but the reality is quite different.
One afternoon the family is out for a swim when they are interrupted by the presence of an Italian television crew shooting a series called “Countryside of Wonders.” Its host, Milly (lovely Monica Bellucci, introduced in a sea goddess costume), stands in a small grotto dressed in an impressive crown, a long white gown, and a large white wig. She is introducing the series: “Why am I here,” she says to the camera, “it was a secret that can now be revealed. We will be here among the Etruscan wonders. Among the families who live like in prehistoric times …”
“Stop”, says the director. “It’s not prehistoric times.” Milly’s response is a toying and sexy smile, reminiscent of Fellini’s best actresses. She waves away the direction dismissively. “I know.” She laughs and corrects herself: “Among the families who still live here like once-upon-a-time. And in this twilight between life and death, we’ll have a long, splendid evening in the mysterious necropolis at the center of the lake. We will talk about sausage, ham, cheese, and many delicacies!” She claps her hands together and leans into the camera with a grin. Suddenly: “This hat is too heavy. Should we do another take?”
Wolfgang looks uncomprehendingly at the performance. He reacts with the kind of hostility he brings to the hunters who trespass on the property, annoying him by firing their guns at all hours, The children are spellbound. Parading around in his underwear fresh from swimming, Wolfgang calls to his brood to leave. His neighbors, who have gathered to watch the television crew, taunt him: “Wolfgang. When are you going to get a boy into the family?” “Maybe soon,” he tells them.
Before they leave, Milly calls out to the three girls: “What little fairies! Come here. They’re so cute. What are your names? “Caterina, Gelsomina, Luna,” they respond. “M’am, you’re beautiful,” calls out little Catarina. Milly hands them brochures and places a hairpin in Gelsomina’s hair.
They have been touched by the grace of a romanticized daydream in a land that they know only through domestic life and hard work. An Italian fairy tale begins. The spot is being filmed to publicize a television contest that is in search of seven families to represent the region. The winner, the clan that best represents the area’s traditional values, will receive “a bag of money and a cruise.” Of course, Wolfgang considers the whole set-up nonsense. Gelsomina is touched by this escapist vision; she is also interested in the promise of a different future. She is determined to find a way to audition. Underneath this showbiz narrative there is a deeper story, one about tradition butting heads with modernity, patriarchy against the feminine, and about the risks of following a dream. It is also a narrative about a girl’s coming-of-age. Gelsomina, hard working and dutiful, has her father’s stubborn streak and is driven to strive for a dream. Her father is a loving man, but he is frustrated, firm in his resolve that honest labor supplies life’s only true value. His grinding work ethic is not paying off financially, and his wife is approaching the end of her patience. Their friend Cocò tries to reason with him to make some changes, but to no avail.
The family dynamic is further complicated when, for a needed cash stipend, a troubled young criminal named Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono) is assigned for the summer to live and work with the family as part of his rehabilitation. Martin isn’t comfortable being touched and rarely even speaks. What he does have is a strange and beautiful whistle. He and Gelsy begin to bond, performing in the town square: he whistles while she releases a live bee from her mouth—the insect then crawls up her face. It is the trick they intend to perform for the television crew. (The actress appears to actually have learned to do this feat.)
Meanwhile, the real work of beekeeping goes on. Rohrwacher nimbly mixes the real and the fantastical. The director uses actual bees and hives; she and her sister grew up beekeeping. The cast members are fully outfitted in protective gear. Gelsy works the hives, looking after her young siblings. The endless buzzing and potential danger of bees generates an otherworldly feel to the film. Yet there is also a sense of concrete innocence as well. The three sisters give flawlessly natural performance; they are playful, endearing, and utterly spontaneous in front of the camera.
The story moves forward in fits and starts, becoming stranger as it goes along. By the time its characters have reached the “mysterious necropolis at the center of the lake,” The Wonders seems to have shifted its tone completely. As in the best of Italian cinema, we have been charmed and lulled into a bewitching new reality. Rohrwacher’s film, which won the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, is a rarity—it is genuinely magical.