Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher returned to her hometown to film The Wonders, an emotionally rich tale about the countryside between Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany and the people who live there. Strong forces, epitomized by an annual TV contest called “Countryside Wonders” that awards people who “represent traditional values,” want to turn the region into what amounts to an Etruscan theme park, encouraging farmers to conform to an image of the past as constricting as the campy wigs, gowns, and headdresses worn by the contest’s hostess, Milly Cantena (Monica Bellucci). But people like the freethinking family of beekeepers at the center of the story have other ideas.
The family consists of a blustery German father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a quietly wise Italian mother, Angelica (played by the director’s oldest sister, Alba Rohrwacher), their four daughters, and Coco (Sabine Timoteo). Coco’s relationship to the rest is never explained (there are hints that she may have joined the parents years ago for an experiment in communal living and never left), but that’s hardly the only unconventional thing about them.
Prizing freedom and hard work, the family eschews harmful chemicals, flouts sanitation and child labor laws, and aims for an egalitarian existence in which everyone does his or her share of the work and Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest daughter, is considered the head of the household, though she’s just 12 years old. The appeal of their self-contained life is easy to see (the land appears perpetually bathed in golden light and the sea cobalt blue, and when they’re caught in a rainstorm the wind is fierce but exhilarating), but so are its demands. The work is strenuous and ceaseless, and there’s rarely money for anything but the essentials.
Intelligent and intuitive, Gelsomina is better than anyone else in the family at working with the animals that surrounded them. The scenes of her with the bees—all performed by the magnetically competent Lungu, with actual bees—are suspenseful, a dance between the force of nature and the human impulse to control made graceful by the girl’s ease with the insects and their surprising compliance, whether she’s pushing an errant swarm off a tree branch and into a box by the handful or delicately picking up a single bee and inviting it to crawl on her face, even into her mouth. Though she’s always been a daddy’s girl, she’s starting to break away as she enters adolescence, longing to interact more with the rest of the world. The most obvious way she rebels is by entering the TV contest, though her father is dead set against it.
Elements of the family’s life are almost as fantastic as the TV show, like the way Wolfgang sometimes sleeps outdoors, not in a tent or a sleeping bag, but in a bed complete with blankets, sheets, and pillows. Or the camel he brings home one day in a vain attempt to win back his daughter (the girl wanted one when she was younger), after which the animal becomes a comically improbable figure that surveys the action from then on with the imperial, somewhat peevish gaze of an ill-tempered director.
The narrative is also dreamlike, skipping a few links like a bike with a loose chain, as when the fate of a deeply traumatized juvenile delinquent Wolfgang brings in to work for the summer becomes a mystery that’s only partially solved. But those gaps feel like gifts rather than errors, signs of respect from a director who wants to leave space for us to imagine our way into the world she creates. Like a rural Fellini, Rohrwacher mixes the mundane with the absurd to create a sometimes fabulous tale that always feels palpably real.