Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Sweeter Than Wine: Alice Rohrwacher's THE WONDERS

Agnese Graziani, Maria Alexandra Lungu, Eva Lea Pace Morrow, and Alba Rohrwacher in The Wonders

Alice Rohrwacher's second feature film, 2014's The Wonders, was shot on location in the rural region of her native Italy where Lazio, Umbria, and Tuscany converge, a fittingly ambiguous place that feels removed from any nation, culture, or borders. Captured on Super 16mm film by Rohrwacher's regular cinematographer Hélène Louvart, the landscapes more closely resemble those of a distant, sun-blasted alien world than the over-romanticized land of villas and vineyards seen in so many sappy cinematic travelogues. Everything looks scraggly and overgrown - a Van Gogh painting run wild, vividly rendered by the rough yet undeniably beautiful quality of the film stock. In this strangely desolate place, a family of beekeepers happily spend their days living and working like solitary settlers, their home a grand old house surrounded by parched fields of brown and yellow brush, the only other signs of human life the sounds of rifle shots from nearby hunters, which anger the family's German father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) enough for him to yell at them in both Italian and his native tongue in his underwear in the early hours of the morning. We come to know this family through Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest of Wolfgang and Angelica's (Alba Rohrwacher, Alice's sister) four daughters. Though Wolfgang has no scruples about getting all four of them to help out with the farm duties, he has clearly singled out Gelsomina as his favorite and trusted right hand. She is the one who boldly climbs a tree to brush a teeming swarm of escaped bees back into their hive with her gloved hand and capably sees to the safe extraction of the honey from the little creatures' combs, pouring heavy buckets of the sweet golden stuff into tall, rocket ship-like cylinders where it will be kept until it is time to jar and sell it. "We're better alone, aren't we, you and me?" Wolfgang says to her during a solitary moment between the two of them, both clad in their matching yellow beekeeping suits, checking on the hives while Gelsomina's sisters wait in the car. Beyond her loyalty, dedication to the farm, and love for her goofy, eccentric father (at one point she dutifully picks the bee stingers out of his back), we can sense Gelso slowly becoming more aware of his assorted quirks and faults - his quick temper, his at-times domineering nature, his paranoid ideas about the impending apocalypse and ineptitude in dealings with the outside world, both of which contributing to the hippie-ish paradise/exile ambiance that pervades the isolated, vaguely commune-like farm. However, Rohrwacher wisely avoids angst-driven confrontations and dramatic moments of truth, instead simply following this quiet, watchful, preternaturally wise girl with gentle, naturalistic ease. The filmmaker's evident lack of interest in the familiar beats and tropes that burden so many coming-of-age stories as well as the contrived sense of whimsy or charm that so often accompanies them greatly helps her film maintain a rare air of laid-back maturity and freshness throughout, something that she has upheld since her debut feature Corpo celeste (2011) through to her latest film, the eagerly anticipated Cannes hit Happy as Lazzaro (2018).

In some respects, The Wonders resembles another great film about fathers and daughters, beekeeping, and life in a dreamy countryside setting, Víctor Erice's sublime The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). But where that film masterfully maintains a tone of haunted, austere solemnity, Rohrwacher decides on a warmer, more organic approach, sticking close to her actors and the rough, unkempt beauty of the spaces and landscapes they inhabit. Also tangible throughout is a slightly pungent earthiness reminiscent of Vigo or Pasolini that continually reminds us of the raw, messy physicality of the people we are watching, as in the early scene in which Marinella (Agnese Graziani), the precocious second-oldest sister, rouses the whole household in the middle of the night in her attempt to use the bathroom, or simply through the sight of the family members casually wearing their skivvies, or the visible wear and dirtiness of the farm's equipment and buildings. All of it is in keeping with the vivid sense of lived-in authenticity Rohrwacher achieves, partly through her careful selection of the film's costumes, which she didn't restrict to any single time period so as to suggest the sharing of clothing between the family members over the years. The various outfits and Wolfgang's beat-up old station wagon, its stereo usually playing some ancient psychedelic funk, suggest we could be anywhere from the 1980s to the early 1990s, the beautifully grainy quality of the film stock evoking worn postcards or old photos whose colors have faded yet still retain an alluring vibrancy. Even more suggestive of the film's situation within some self-enclosed bubble of the past are its inspired book-ending sequences, the dreamlike opening one following distant sets of headlights that appear like fireflies in a vast ocean of darkness. The headlights belong to a group of hunters, men with dogs and gear and rifles who happen upon an abandoned old house - the family's - in the night, their flashlights' beams shining through the windows, traversing years to land on the motionless limbs of Gelsomina and her sisters safely asleep inside. At the end of their tale, the home eerily reverts back to a dark, empty building, Tarkovskian curtains gently floating in the rooms inside. Afterwards, I found myself hoping that Gelsomina and her family were just as happy and content in whichever place they moved on to as they were in the house, just as I'd like to think the moments they all shared together in that house made it happy, somehow - warm and grateful for the life and joy that once resided within its stone walls and danced and ran upon its wooden floors.

Maria Alexandra Lungu in The Wonders

As in The Spirit of the Beehive, two intrusions from the outside world soon begin to further expand and influence our young heroine's perceptions of the world beyond her family and the farm, the first and more sensational one being a television crew that has arrived to host and shoot a competition among the local farmers called Countryside Wonders. Presided over by the ornately costumed TV personality Milly (Monica Bellucci), the whole production cheesily conjures facile, easily marketable images of "ancient traditions" and cornucopias of appetizing artisan foodstuffs, a humorously far cry from the grubbier realities of farm life through which Wolfgang and his family make their living. Even so, Gelsomina sees the potential good (namely prize money and much-needed publicity) the contest could bring them while Wolfgang views the whole enterprise with fearful skepticism; not for nothing does Gelso usually come across as the most mature person out of everyone there, and at one point is even introduced as the head of the family to a visitor! The second upset to their existence arrives in the form of Martin (Luis Huilca Logroño), a young German boy with a history of petty theft and arson who is assigned to live with them as part of a rehabilitation program that Wolfgang enrolls them in - without telling anyone! - just to shamelessly collect the support cheques it will bring. Later, once the small, quiet young man is awkwardly yet politely welcomed into the female-dominated family unit, Wolfgang takes him under his wing as his new go-to helper and son surrogate of-sorts, to Gelsomina's silent dismay. While nothing as typical or clearly defined as friendship or romance - or rivalry, for that matter - ever fully develops between Martin and Gelsomina, the two of them nonetheless share a mysterious bond that seems to only deepen once the latter matches Martin's odd gift for perfectly imitating birdsong with her own peculiar talent, a small bit of magic that makes her even more naturally suited to the world of honeybees than her father.

Rohrwacher introduces those and other such "wonders" into the fabric of her film casually and without a trace of overdone fanfare. This of course makes these occurrences all the more magical and curious once they arrive, as in the scene when a visiting inspector from Countryside Wonders is revealed to have different-colored eyes, one an enchantingly bright shade of blue. At the same time, the film finds wonders in each and every scene, the camera often drifting off on its own to eagerly show us something interesting or beautiful: patterns of light from various sources (fire, flashlights, the sun) dancing and shining upon various surfaces; a stream of Christmas lights circling the underground tomb where Countryside Wonders is filmed; a huddle of wizened grandmothers, lit in crimson, singing in harmony for the gathered contestants, TV people, and cameras. Delightful scenes generously spill forth one by one: Wolfgang's warm embrace of Adrian (André Hennicke), an old friend, in the orange rays of sunset (the other man's curse - "Fucking hunters!" - at the familiar sound of the rifle shots is irresistible); the two youngest sisters splashing around in rain puddles in the muddy road leading to their house; the tranquil, mesmerizing bee sequences; the bizarre spectacle of the Countryside Wonders show in the Etruscan tomb. One cryptic reoccurring motif involves Wolfgang falling asleep in his home surrounded by his family, only for the film to give way, with a single cut, to him outside on a mattress, alone, by morning. Surprise and humor abound throughout the whole film, a bit of one, the other, or both in every scene, while the fascinating relationship dynamics between each of the family members, including Martin and Cocò (Sabine Timoteo), Angelica's kooky sister, helps the whole thing stick together as a lovable, refreshingly idiosyncratic portrayal of work and family at their most inseparable and joyous.

In another great scene, Gelsomina issues one of her many orders to Marinella, this time to drink from a ray of sunlight piercing a dark room. Watching this film is like doing just that; like sunlight or honey, every bit of it offers warmth, nourishment, the essence of life itself. And yes, like the honey we see being carefully collected, it is very sweet indeed.

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