By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett News Service
“The Wonders” is one of those films that’s easier to experience than explain, which is almost always a good thing.
Alice Rohrwacher’s film is about a family of beekeepers in rural Tuscany, struggling to make ends meet as they work below safety code and standards. The father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), is a headstrong transplanted German with long limbs and a short temper, fighting a Quixotic battle to keep things as they are, a natural way of life.
But the heart, soul and brains of the operation — both the beekeeping and the family — is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). At 12, Gelsi, as everyone calls her, is the oldest of four daughters and one of those children who just seems to know how life works. She certainly knows how beekeeping works; she and her sisters tend to most of the real business of bees, while her father mostly shouts, “Change the buckets!”
And to paraphrase Chekov’s admonition about the gun, bucket changing mentioned in the first act must have a payoff by the last.
Despite Wolfgang’s haranguing, this seems to be one of those families that often gets along by not getting along, with younger sister Marinella (Agnese Graziani) arguing with Gelsi, with Wolfgang arguing with … everybody.
But there is obviously love here, and the girls have a good time of it, with the youngest two splashing in the mud and, in one beautiful scene, Gelsi telling Marinella to drink — from the ray of sunlight pouring through a hole in a barn. It’s an idyllic lifestyle that Wolfgang is desperate to hang onto. At one point, pesticides seem like the most likely culprit to interrupt things, but that is no match for the introduction of something even more toxic: showbiz.
Or will it be salvation?
While romping around in the water one day, Wolfgang and the girls happen upon shooting for a reality show, with a goddess-like hostess (Monica Bellucci) whose beauty stuns Gelsi, as do the lights and cameras. The show is a contest for the most traditional farmer in the region. Gelsi figures, what with her father’s attitude and their beekeeping business, they’re obvious candidates. And the prize money would be a godsend.
Guess what Wolfgang thinks.Meanwhile, a boy who has already run into trouble with the law and can only whistle, not talk, comes to live with the family. Wolfgang’s wife, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, Alice’s real-life sister), is reluctant to bring him in. But since everyone always asks Wolfgang when he’s going to have a son to go with his four daughters, he’s eager to bring him aboard.
It sounds like it’s all building to a head, and it does, but not in an explosive way. There is a lyrical quality to Rohrwacher’s filmmaking, a gentle beauty that extends to the countryside; to flashlights poking through the dark; to bees, bees and more bees, their humming becoming a part of the soundtrack of their lives until you don’t hear them, and you realize it’s missing.
Maybe that’s the sound Wolfgang doesn’t want to go away. “The Wonders” is music of its own kind, just as hypnotic.
‘The Wonders’ three stars
Oscilloscope Pictures presents a film written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher. In Italian, German and French with English subtitles. Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque.