The mood of Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders” is similar to that of her 2011 debut, “Corpo celeste”: Dardennes-inspired lensing, impressionistic sequences capturing the developing spirit of an adolescent girl, and a sense of people out of step with the world. Here the helmer-scripter is inspired by her backstory, with mixed Italian-German parentage, strong sister personalities and a farm in central Italy figuring into the story. Aiming to capture a young teen’s sense of belonging in a family determined to steer its own course, the pic has intermittent rewards yet isn’t weighty enough to justify a Cannes competish slot. Smaller fests and a modest Euro release make more likely venues.
Like “Corpo celeste,” the film opens with an indistinct nighttime scene that appears unmoored from what’s to come. Hunters imprecisely glimpsed in roaming flashlights are never seen again, and later only the occasional sound of rifle discharges, railed against by pater familias Wolfgang (Belgium’s Sam Louwyck), reminds viewers of this prologue. The idea (presumably) is to confirm the protags as an independent unit not born to the traditions of the land — they farm, but they don’t hunt. German transplant Wolfgang; his wife, Angelica (the helmer’ sis Alba); their four daughters; and an unexplained member of the entourage, Coco (Swiss thesp Sabine Timoteo), are refugees from contempo urban life who have turned their backs on the system, to farm and keep bees in as pure a way as possible.
Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), on the brink of her teens, is the eldest child and a key participant in the family’s beekeeping venture. Since this is summer, helmer Rohrwacher doesn’t need to bother with the interruptions of school, focusing on Gelsomina’s position in the family and on the farm. Marinella (Agnese Graziani), four years younger, is independent-spirited and often in conflict with her sister (“Corpo celeste” also featured a pair of argumentative sisters; could there be some root in the Rohrwachers’ past?). Angelica looks after their few animals and the two youngest kids, but otherwise her presence is less felt than those of Wolfgang and the two older daughters.
Audiences will need to glean the family’s history from behavior more than from dialogue or action: They’re newcomers to this part of the country (much of the shooting took place in the region where Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany meet), the kind of rural transplants who like to sleep outdoors and who denounce the industrialization of agriculture. So when Wolfgang and the kids stumble upon the filming of a cheap promo for a “Most Traditional Family” contest, he’s dismissive of this crass objectification, while Gelsomina and Marinella, typical children, are seduced by the idea of appearing alongside wondrous glamour queen Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci).
Of course, Wolfgang won’t agree to selling out like that, but he’s in need of money quickly: European law requires he standardize the area where the honey is processed, and the family can’t afford to fix up their ramshackle facilities. They get a little extra money by taking on Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono), a German juvenile in a delinquent rehab program, but that causes some tension when Gelsomina senses Wolfgang’s wish for a son. Financial worries lead to frayed nerves, and then Gelsomina’s secret application to enter the contest gets accepted.
Rohrwacher’s style lays more emphasis on mood than plot (though the storyline is clear), conjuring a conflicted world of regulation and freedom in all aspects of the characters’ lives. On the parent front, Angelica’s rationalism clashes with Wolfgang’s head-in-the-sand idealism — there’s no demonstrable love between them, though it’s uncertain whether this is a deliberate script choice or a narrative flaw. His preferential treatment of Martin clashes with Gelsomina’s sense of her position as Daddy’s main helper, and her burgeoning adolescence means she’s uncomfortably inhabiting an in-between period that’s difficult to negotiate at the best of times. Rohrwacher previously demonstrated her sensitivity to this stage in a girl’s life, and here, too, she handles it with compassion and complexity.
Less successful is her decision to depict the family as all present and no past: Coco’s place within this structure is never explained, though it cries out for some clarification. Similarly, either more or less of Martin is wanted, and the two youngest kids are simply background kewpies splashing in farm muck. As with “Corpo celeste,” Rohrwacher seems most comfortable with atmosphere, such as subtly connoting the uneasy relationship between Wolfgang’s family of countryside arrivistes and the peasants who have been on the soil for lifetimes.
Scenes with the “Most Traditional Family” contest have a dreamlike quality in keeping with how a child would view such things, and in her brief scenes, Bellucci expertly hints at surprising depths beneath the surface of this rather ridiculous figure dressed like a landlocked mermaid. Louwyck, a dancer by training, is more compelling as a physical presence than in his verbal interactions with others; the two lead girls are well cast and thoroughly immersed in their roles.
Visuals are in the same style as “Corpo celeste”; both films were lensed by Helen Louvart in a neorealist manner indebted to documentary filmmaking (attractive scenes of bee cultivation could easily have been shot for a nonfiction report on honey production, which, not coincidentally, is the Rohrwacher family business). It all makes for an appealing yet oddly insubstantial work, like an early impressionist sketch in need of a little more focus, and perhaps a more suitable frame.