Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 16, 2014 4:42 pm 
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Italian fantasies and Italian realities in Liguria

For her second film Italian, part-German filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher has rooted her story more deeply in a specific milieu, that of an impoverished family of beekeepers but again as in her debut Corpo Celeste (NYFF 2011) focuses on young girls and refers to a Felliniesque fascination with folk mysticism, kitsch, and media distortion. The "Wonders" is a low-budget TV regional publicity scheme called "Il paese delle Meraviglie" (Land of Wonders) designed to improve bee-keeping while providing touristic publicity for the Etruscan background of Etruria, where the depicted family lives. There's a whisper of Matteo Garrone's Reality here (a recent big prize winner for Italian cinema: it, like The Wonders, won the Grand Prix at Cannes) only this time the dreamer isn't a naive man but a young teenage girl, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). There's a whisper of neorealism in the multicultural, mostly non-actor cast (which Rohrwacher wrangles excellently). And there's more than a whisper of autobiography in the sisterly rivalries, the German father, the beekeeping. The parents speak French when they want the kids not to know what's being said. All this creates an air of disorienting, slightly miraculous disorder, enhanced by the strangeness of the beekeeping itself, and certain borderline magic realist moments, like the one when Gelsomina lets bees walk over her face and a German boy whistles to make them drop off.

Rohrwacher plunges viewers at once into the intense life of the beekeeper family. They are dominated by bossy, borderline boorish babbo Wolfgang (Belgian actor Sam Louwyck), who rejects modern, commercial life (he thinks the world "is going to end") and vaunts the organic simplicity of the family's product, cursing local hunters at the outset, driving the four sisters and another female relative (Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo) to help with the livestock and the beekeeping, with Gelsomina, the first-born, his chief protege. The honey is always being collected into a bucket that might overflow, and "avete cambiato il secchio?" ("Have you changed the bucket?") is the constant worrying question. One gets a sense that Wolfgang is better at throwing his weight around than conducting practical business; the family can barely make ends meet, and mamma Angelica (Alice Rohrbacher's sister Alba) is the one who puts food on the table and tends to practical matters. Wolfgang's impracticality is signaled by his giving the girls the present of a circus camel. Such goofs lead Angelica to threaten to separate from Wolfgang.

The accomplishment, but for some perhaps the annoyance, of Rohrwacher's film is its amiable, hippieish chaos, which blends into the cheesy publicity scheme speerheaded by a white-wigged TV "fata bianca" or fairy godmother played by Monica Bellucci. A very young German juvenile delinquent called Martin delivered to the family for "reeducation" is the catalyst for Gelsomina's final coming-of-age. All he can do is spectacularly whistle. A beautiful, slightly odd little boy, he does not speak. Odd casting, because he looks more Italian than anyone else in the cast; but even this adds to the special feel of this sui generis effort, whose Felliniesque climax is the "paese delle Meraviglie" awards show in an Etruscan grotto offshore, with local peasant farmers, including Gelsomina's family and a tamed Wolfgang, in tacky pseudo-historical costumes, and a disappearance and a search.

This is a more realistic (as well as pseudo-miraculous) movie than Rohrwacher's debut, and its achievement of a world seemingly too complicated to be merely imagined and all the success with the young actors (who learned beekeeping techniques) must explain the enthusiasm of the Cannes reception leading to the Grand Prize. But while others liked Corpo Celeste far less, I liked it more, and await Rohrwacher's number three.

The Wonders/Le meraviglie, 110 mins., debuted at Cannes (Grand Prize). Many other festivals, theatrical releases in Italy, France, Austria. Screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival.

(For my full coverage of the 2014 NYFF see also FILMLEAF.)

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