As sensitively handled as it is - its tactile, earthen textures tactfully shot by DP Hélène Louvart perfectly in sync with its rural background - Italian director Alice Rohrwacher's sophomore effort isn't quite up narratively to its many intriguing suggestions. At heart, it's a coming-of-age tale for a teenager stuck between the natural yearnings of her age and a complicated, convoluted family who relies far too much on her. But The Wonders of the title seem to be more in the manner Ms. Rohrwacher shoots her way through the folds and side tracks of the plot rather than in the somewhat predictable beats that supply the narrative scaffolding.
Just like 14-year old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who is torn between her responsibility as the seemingly most responsible person in the household and her desire for once to act her age, Ms. Rohrwacher seems torn between the need to anchor her tale to a recognisable reality and the desire to cut loose and follow the magic wherever it may take her. It's in the bookending sections of the film - a night-time prologue than sees a pack of hunters slowly make their way through the deep countryside of Etruria, and a remarkably single-take shot that makes visible the passage of time in the family's home - that The Wonders is truly wonderful; as it is, in fact, every time it surrenders to the simple beauty of nature and the satisfyingly archaic hardships of living and working off the land.
It's there that Gelsomina lives with her three sisters and her parents, the German Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and the Italian Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director's sister), who make a living cultivating natural honey; they're always struggling for money, though, and Wolfgang has all the hallmarks of a radical, impulsive idealist without much of a head for business. His temper is key to the narrative: though he openly relies on the wise-beyond-her-years Gelsomina, who has a gift around bees and pretty much keeps the business going, he has little patience for the younger daughters and for his long-suffering wife, who often acts as an unheard voice of reason.
His taking up of a young German boy (Luis Huilca Logroño), a petty thief on reeducational parole, to help with the harvesting and bottling of the honey, sends ripples through the family structure. At the same time, a seedy television programme comes to the region with the promise of a possible big payoff for the winner of a competition for locally-manufactured produce. While everyone sees that could help the farm raise the money it needs, the rigidity of Wolfgang's refusal to even contemplate participating offers Gelsomina a quandary she has to take responsibility for.
It's from the superimposition of a quasi-Fellinian satire of media and celebrity culture (the programme is called Countryside Wonders) and the almost effortless magic of the natural world that the film takes its title. But despite some truly wondrous scenes, and a generosity of spirit that is visible in the unhurried, slow-burn performances, the general narrative arc veers far too much towards the pedestrian, with a list of obligatory markers dutifully checked as a means to get from point A to point B; nearly everyone other than Gelsomina is painted in reasonably broad strokes, more functional than truly fleshed out, fulfilling archetypes necessary to illustrate the plot. (One of the few exceptions is Milly Catena, the presenter of the TV programme, played by Monica Bellucci as a strange fairy godmother who seems to be the only one that doesn't condescend towards the young girl.)
Yet, despite the sense this is just another coming-of-age tale merely differentiated by its magic-realist trappings, The Wonders does prove there is a talented filmmaker behind it, with Ms. Rohrwacher's sensitivity coming through loud and clear. It's visibly the work of someone who knows what she's doing and knows what she wants; if she keeps going this way, she'll get there sooner rather than later.
Italy, Switzerland, Germany 2014
Cast Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Sabine Timoteo, Monica Bellucci
Director and screenwriter Alice Rohrwacher; cinematographer Hélène Louvart (colour); composer Piero Crucitti; designer Emita Frigato; costumes Loredana Buscemi; editor Marco Spoletini; producers Carlo Cresto-Dina, Karl Baumgartner, Tiziana Soudani and Michael Weber; production companies Tempesta and Rai Cinema in co-production with Amka Films Productions, Pola Pandora Filmproduktion, RSI SRG SSR and ZDF/das kleine Fernsehspiel in collaboration with ARTE
Screened March 24th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener DVD)