"The Wonders," Alice Rohrwacher's uncanny exploration of innocence, raises many questions. Like, what's with the camel? Who is Cocó? And why is everybody in their underwear?
None of these oddities is explained and all are taken for granted by the characters. In addition to evoking a sense of wonder, and the disequilibrium of a dream, this casual acceptance of the weird emphasizes the child's point of view so intimately and knowingly established by Rohrwacher and by Maria Alexandra Lungu as the adolescent protagonist Gelsomina.
Like her namesake in Federico Fellini's "La Strada" (1954), Gelsomina suffers the oppression of an uncouth male — her father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyk). She labors tending bees, gathering honey, and processing it in the family's ramshackle farmhouse (a pastiche of patchwork additions and a character in its own right) in the most rustic part of Tuscany.
Unlike Fellini's waif, however, this Gelsomina is bright and eager to see the world beyond their primitive surroundings. Her father, though, has deemed the outside world as decadent and wants to protect Gelsomina and her three younger sisters from it. Plus, they are a source of cheap labor. The situation resembles a gender reversed, rural version of the documentary "The Wolfpack."
The girl's mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director's sister), careworn but beautiful, has resigned herself to Wolfgang's tyranny. Yet, when she and the girls spend a moment alone basking in a river, she notes how peaceful it is without Wolfgang around.
That's not enough for Gelsomina. When a TV reality game show, "Countryside Wonders" — hosted by the tawdry, Glenda the Good-like Milly (Monica Bellucci) — films in their area, she insists on signing her family up as contestants.
Rohrwacher shoots this shaggy dog narrative from the perspective of Gelsomina, with her limited knowledge of what's going on in the adult world. It's a world of anxiety but also of magic, as when Gelsomina instructs a sister on how to gather a beam of light in her hands like a stream of water. "The Wonders" evokes many other films, but is utterly unique. It is like being privy to a marvelous story that Rohrwacher is telling herself.
★ ★ ★ ½
Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyk, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci. At Kendall Square. 111 minutes. Unrated (people in the
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