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The Wonders is a slice of life so slight that even repeated helpings won’t leave you satisfied. In rural Tuscany, we meet a family of beekeepers living a hardscrabble life far from tourists or broken-hearted women healing themselves with drool-worthy pasta and a passionate fling. It’s a portrait that’s romantic one moment and realistic the next. In between, however, are too many blanks: Whereas writer-director Alice Rohrwacher contrives to capture backcountry magic for the viewer to drink in, you’ll likely be too distracted by questions to swoon along with her.
Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) is the shaggy-dog patriarch of the family, a German transplant with not the gentlest of temperaments toward his kind partner, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), and their four well-behaved daughters: Gelsomina (Alexandra Maria Lungu), Marinella (Agnese Graziani), Caterina (Eva Lea Pace Morrow), and Luna (Maris Stella Morrow). Also living with them is Coco (Sabine Timoteo), a middle-aged woman whose relationship to the family is never explained.
Gelsomina, the eldest at 12, is her father’s right hand, assuredly tending to the hives and even diagnosing the cause of a mass death (“it’s not the plague, it’s poison”) while her next-youngest sister, Marinella, makes excuses not to help. Caterina and Luna are relative toddlers, old enough for Angelica to believe they should start learning the family business but too young to be anything but a burden while Wolfgang and Gelsomina work.
When the family takes a breather one afternoon to splash around in the sea, a crew member from a reality show called Countryside Wonders comes over to ask them to quiet down while they shoot a commercial. Gelsomina becomes enchanted by the show’s glamorous, mermaid-outfitted host (Monica Bellucci) and registers for the competition, which will award a cash prize to the most “traditional” family. She does this in secret, because Wolfgang, forever negative, automatically said no.
The other novelty on this farm comes in the form of a delinquent, mute German boy who’s part of a rehabilitation program—if Wolfgang puts him to work and he doesn’t cause trouble, the family will be compensated.
This may sound like sufficient plot for a feature film, with Gelsomina’s coming-of-age arc at its center. But The Wonders is more episodic than linear, and many details aren’t explained, such as Gelsomina’s very temporary black eye, her anger at Marinella in one scene, and a man named Adrian (André Hennicke) who seems to be an old friend of Wolfgang’s but also has a history with Coco. Regardless of who he is, he shows up one night and disappears just as quickly. Angelica, at one point, also insists that she’s leaving Wolfgang, but that decision is mentioned once and never again.
The family sometimes sleeps together in an outdoor bed, lending—I suppose—an air of fairytale rusticality. In another scene, Gelsomina orders Marinella to “drink” from a beam of sunlight—how fucking quaint. The film’s most important image, however, seems to be Gelsomina’s trick of having a bee come out of her mouth and crawl on her face. They never sting her, so for the more pessimistic viewers of The Wonders, the point of the stunt—along with the point of the entire film—will be lost.
The Wonders opens Friday at Landmark West End Cinema.