Taking place in the derelict, remote Italian countryside, we delve into the life of a dysfunctional family of beekeepers who produce a high-standard of honey – led, seemingly, by the scruffy anarchist and tyrant that nobody pays any attention to, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), whose idealistic, non-conformist approach to life is a thorn in the side of his beleaguered wife Angelica (played by the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher), and four daughters. Believing he’s in command, stamping his authority with a harsh thud, instead that duty belongs to his undervalued eldest, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who keeps this family together, and in a bid to improve their fortunes and seek a better existence, she enters them on to a TV show, hosted by the beguiling, angelic Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci) that awards local farmers for their traditional produce – much to her father’s dismay.
Each and every dynamic between these primary set of characters – which also includes family friend Coco (Sabine Timoteo) and the mute, brooding teenager Martin (Luis Huilca) who’s on the run from the law, but offered a place to bide his time given Wolfgang’s yearning for a son, and heir – are layered, complex relationships, that make for a thought-provoking piece of cinema. The Wonders is a film made by a filmmaker with a very distinct vision – and a vision that has been fully realised, as just the way the bees and the family’s pet camel represent Gelsomina; diligent, hard-working but ultimately under-appreciated. Or the way Bellucci’s Milly Catena is symbolic of an angel, dressed in white and offering a way out of this exhausting livelihood. Yet there is an endearment to this family’s failings, it makes them seem, well, normal.
That normality is most prevalent when the family turn up on the TV show, where Rohrwacher has taken notes from her contemporaries Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino and their respective pictures Reality and The Great Beauty, in how celebrity culture and the entertainment industry is presented as a distorted, surrealist fantasy of sorts, that alienates the protagonist and in turn, the viewer. We garner such a deranged, abstract view of this world that seems so alien – and for the first time in this production, we see the world from Wolfgang’s perspective; as a foreigner to it all.
The Wonders is a striking picture that offers a wondrous visual experience, complete with an ineffable, indelible atmosphere. There’s so much at play here though, that you do leave feeling as though there’s still so much to explore. This will undoubtedly be enriched on a second viewing, and maybe, just maybe, understood on a third.