Watching The Wonders teaches you a lot about making honey. Long and intricate – very long, very intricate – sequences give a step by step guide to this rural industry, as we watch 12 year old Gelsomina help her father with the family business. And this sums up the best or worst of the film, depending on your perspective. In The Wonders, director Alice Rohrwacher is concerned with the every day slog of a dying way of rural Italian life, and in a certain mood you could reasonably describe the watching of it as a bit of slog too. In a different frame of mind though, The Wonders is a dream, with a background thrum of threat, as constant as the buzzing of the bees.
We join Gelso and her family during a hot summer at the borders of Tuscany and Umbria-Lazio. Wolfgang, her volatile father, Angelica, her bohemian mother, and a nest of adorably pot-bellied baby sisters complete a picture of sort-of-but-not-really idyllic self-sufficiency. It’s not straight-forwardly enviable because life is just so damn hard. There are hives to be emptied at dawn, bee-stings to be extracted, and new health and safety regulations to be met at the risk of closure. To a man, the actors put in appropriately earthy and natural performances, under Rohrwacher’s hyper-realist direction.
The leading lady, Gelso, deserves a whole review of her own. She’s the heir to this empire of bees, and often the most grown-up member of the household. But we also get the impression that poor old Gelso would also quite like to be pretty, maybe even get swept away by a local lad on his motorbike. That’s not really an option as far as Dad’s concerned: try coming-of-age when you’re also keeping an industry afloat.
Into this pregnant set-up comes the garishly sequinned world of local television. A provincial channel is launching a competition to find the region’s “most traditional family”. (It’s absurd enough to be totally credible… a more zeitgeisty Got Talent, Simon Cowell?) Gelsomina, a little in love with the costumed nymph-goddess presenting the show, wants the prize-money for her family and fancies a little glamour for herself. This is the sliver of story-line that Rohrwacher teases us with, but really, it isn’t one. Just like the family of beekeepers who can’t lift their head above the hives long enough to see the bigger picture, The Wonders is so obsessed with the every day that it can’t commit to anything like a plot. “Directionless” is a fair assessment.
Fact is, The Wonders tackles its story the way its characters tackle life, and it feels just right. It’s the moments that matter, not the through-line. For all the languor there are snapshots of what-the-fuck panic or silly giggly delight. When a neglected centrifuge (you laymen might think of it as a “getting-the-honey-out-
Essentially, what you get here is a weird atmosphere to revel in – it’s dreamy, but you know something bad’s coming your way. A bit like playing truant and dozing in the sun. It’s a masterpiece of direction that this whole world is so tangible – unsurprisingly, Rohrwacher was drawing on her own childhood experience. There’s no danger of being whisked along on a merry romp with The Wonders but go to the cinema with time on your hands and you could enjoy sinking into a lost world. Plus, you might learn to make honey.