Alice Rohrwacher’s sophomore feature Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) may have had only one screening this festival (not counting the press screening), but it seems to be making an impact already, with many people right now hailing it as a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or. That’s perhaps partly because Rohrwacher is one of only two female directors in competition (the other being Naomi Kawase), and people expecting jury president Jane Campion to be partial to that, but such talk is not necessary, because this little Italian film should be a favourite just on its intimate quality alone. The film is a really touching mixture of fairy tale, coming-of-age story, and socio-economic commentary, and ultimately a sad lament for a way of living (and making a living) that is on a rapid decline in Europe. The film is bleak in its outlook on local farm life, but hopeful in its portrayal of its central character, the young Gelsomina, in a heartrending performance by debutante Maria Alexandra Lungu.
Gelsomina may be young, but she practically runs her household, which she shares with her father Wolfgang (Sam Louwick), his wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), Gelsomina’s three younger sisters, and a live-in help in the family’s honey production, Cocò (Sabine Timoteo). Gelsomina is the one that helps out her father most in his business, retrieving lost bee swarms from trees, taking care of the extraction of the honey, and carrying the hives. It’s a hard-earned living, and you can feel this family is living on the border of poverty, in a country and continent where small-scale produce farms are being pushed out by large-scale, factory-like farms. Problems arise when the family needs to obey new European farming laws, for which costly renovations to the honey lab would have to be done. When Wolfgang and the girls by chance run into the taping of a TV show that is in search of the best local produce on offer, giving away a cash prize for the winner, Gelsomina sees a way out of her family’s problems. She is also enamoured by the show’s host, the good fairy Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci, whose outfit is probably the craziest she has ever worn). Wolfgang doesn’t want to hear about entering the competition though, since he does not want to lose his heir, Gelsomina, to the lure of a life outside the countryside.
In the midst of all this, the family takes on a young delinquent German boy, Martin, from a rehabilitation exchange program. Though in reality, Wolfgang takes him into his home for the cash that comes with it. The relationship between Gelsomina and the aloof Martin is difficult at first, but they grow closer as Gelsomina slowly has to deal with butterflies next to her bees. Martin’s arrival, however, also puts a strain on the girl’s relationship with her father, who sees the young boy as the male heir he never had.
Rohrwacher’s naturalist style, reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers, is a strong fit for the socio-economic undercurrent in the film. Life in the countryside is harsh, and this shines through in every image shot in and around the farm. As a contrast, the scenes set around Milly Catena and her show are, not in the least because of their fantastical setting, like a fairy tale. They are a glimpse for Gelsomina of another life, a life she has no idea of at all. Rohrwacher embeds her social message subtly into her dialogue as well. At the grand finale of the TV contest, one of the farmers says he would use the prize money to set up a countryside bed and breakfast for tourists. Because whereas on the one hand, ‘we’ as tourists would love to get our produce cheap (which necessitates large-scale farming and the use of pesticides, for instance), on the other hand we are charmed by local products when on trips, which we then hail to all our friends as superior to that stuff you buy in supermarkets (a cornerstone of hipsterdom). We close our eyes to the economic hardship this entails for the small farmers, because in our minds farm life is this idyllic, rustic way of living.
But even apart from this political message, just the family drama itself and the way the members of the household interact makes for a powerful film. The dynamics of the family, and the fact that they seem to have different backgrounds, creates some intense scenes, where in the height of emotions the characters might switch easily between Italian, German, and French. Why that is, is never made fully clear, certainly not in the case of the mysterious Coco, but it does heighten the effect of being dropped into a story that is not particular to just this family, but a whole segment of society. One can imagine the discussions this family has going on in many farm families: should we change our ways, should we aim for tourism, should we maybe just quit altogether? The outlook for this way of living is bleak, and the future for the Gelsominas of this world is not bright. Gelsomina, despite her age, seems to sense this, so it is understandable that the fairy tale is alluring.
This quiet, sober tale is strong in the honesty of its portrayal, and gripping in the at once understated and raw emotional performances, in particular by Lungu and Louwick. We are only four days into the festival, but even if there are still ten films to be shown in competition, one feels that this small entry deserves to win at least something. For now, it deserves to win the whole thing.