A family of beekeepers explore reality television in this Grand Prix-winning drama
For anyone curious about the title for Alice Rohrwacher’s Grand Prix-winning film The Wonders (Le meraviglie), it comes from a reality television competition that plays a significant role in the feature. The full title of the show is The Countryside Wonders, and it showcases families, including the eventual winner of a cash prize in a costume-filled ceremony, who make and sell distinctive homemade products. The featured clan in the film are beekeepers who reside on a remote Tuscan farm. But to say that this reality show chapter of the movie is more obviously important than half a dozen or so other strands would be misleading. What’s essential – and what’s there woven across much of The Wonders – is an insulated family unit unequipped for change yet unable to avoid it.
The nature of the dynamic among family members requires growth and adaptation. The four female children, including Gelsomina who’s approaching adolescence and its trappings, are joined by parents Abraham (Sam Louwyck) and Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s older sister) as well as family friend Coco (Sabine Timoteo). We see the roles evolving, as Gelsomina and her younger sister Marinella take on added responsibilities befitting their levels of maturity. Added to the mix is a silent German boy named Martin, a delinquent taken on as a farmhand so that the struggling family can make some extra money. The balance here is extremely delicate. There’s tension between the parents, as he’s a somewhat boorish man unable or unwilling to exhibit compassion or compromise. Financial troubles mean they might soon have to give up the farm and, in turn, their livelihood. The increasing dominance of Gelsomina, at twelve years old, also seems to veer things into greater uncertainty.
Throughout, Rohrwacher’s choices as writer and director, in this just her second narrative feature, register as remarkably assured amid a subject which could have easily veered into any number of unfortunate directions. Since she did indeed grow up with a German father and Italian mother who were beekeepers in Tuscany, the autobiographical aspects of the film at least establish a sort of built-in compass. Stories steeped in truth only get one so far, however, and it’s less the milieu, which nonetheless feels authentically captivating, than what’s done with it that stands out here. By the time Monica Bellucci, playing reality show host Milly, hands over her wig to a wide-eyed Gelsomina the point has pretty well been made that Rohrwacher is aiming for a bit more than a character study and a bit more than a standard coming-of-age arthouse flick.
Part of what makes The Wonders so enchanting is its patience. The confidence of filmmaking, perhaps when armed with that attached authenticity, shines especially in the almost hypnotic beekeeping scenes. Rohrwacher apparently never obtained authorization to shoot this footage yet she used it anyway. As much as anything else in the film, the scenes with the family members performing their daily tasks set the exact mood needed and allow for added weight to the family squabbles. The culmination of this is probably the aftermath of not changing the all-important bucket, spilling honey across the floor and leading to a hasty clean-up effort. These seemingly simple tasks somehow gain special resonance here.
By the final third of the picture, when the reality show portion clicks into full swing, Rohrwacher has already established a rich family of characters whose journey is now taking them somewhere different and new. They have become people we know and recognize, whose lives hopefully hold some meaning in the context of the film. It’s less an opportunity to root for a result than one to witness how they will react to a most unusual event. But the director is keen enough to use it more as a device than a solution. She’s made a strange, haunting movie that seems to stay true to itself above all else.
Oscilloscope Laboratories release The Wonders in R1 as a region-free NTSC DVD. No accompanying Blu-ray edition, owing apparently to industry realities and whatnot. It’s packaged in an attractive cardboard gatefold per the usual O-Scope template but the paper material itself feels smoother than other releases from the company that I’ve experienced.
The image is in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It exhibits definite and thick grain while nonetheless looking sun-kisssed and glorious. Probably would’ve looked better in high-definition but I suppose we can only judge what we have, not what we might’ve had. Surprisingly, there’s a hair in the gate visible late in the film. Otherwise, no damage or issues of significance on display.
Audio is available in primarily Italian (with some German and French sprinkled in), either in a 5.1 surround or stereo track. Both are more than sufficient. Less pleasing are the optional English subtitles, which are for the hearing impaired and include noises spelled out in words. There’s no track simply showing the dialogue translated in English. So, early on when Marinella is sitting on the toilet we have to endure a “(plops)” as she goes about her business.
Extra features include a set of twelve Deleted Scenes, playable either separately or consecutively. These average between one and two minutes in length. There’s a short Image Gallery Video (2:09), with production designs and on-set photos. Even briefer is the featurette “A View from Inside Cannes” (1:10) quickly showing some red carpet and award ceremony moments. The theatrical trailer (1:40) is also here. Most substantial, if only tangentially related, is a black and white episode from 1951 called “Bee City” (11:03) and originating from the early television program John Kieran’s Kaleidoscope. Here we see the workings of a hive, with the added bonus of an ant invasion, as Kieran narrates.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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