At the best of times, festivals are funny things. Films often undergo trials by fire, as you’re pitting one work against the other, back to back. In the sweaty cauldron that is Cannes, with its almost manic need to see just how good a certain work is in contrast to the others, things can get jumbled. Add in the lack of sleep and almost delusional fugue state that seeing 50+ films in 11 days can put you in and some things simply don’t work in context.
I say all this as a kind of preamble to a review, if only as a cautionary tale for those that forget such context for how to watch certain films. When I saw it towards the end of last year’s Cannes film fest, after it was crowned a Grand Prix winner, I was underwhelmed. I knew the film then by its Italian name, Le meraviglie, and a year on remembered little other than some shots with bees, a bunch of spilled honey, and an obnoxious family that were whiny, with a truculent patriarch often doffing little more than ill-fitting underwear.
Yet watching The Wonders again last night as a one-off, free from the distractions of the Croissette or the crippling exhaustion, I found myself drawn in to Alice Rohrwacher’s strange tale of rural life.
The story surrounds this family, a mix of Italian, French and German influences making for a kind of pan-European rural idyll. The film’s opening shot is a group of hunter/tourists who are surprised to find a farmhouse in the middle of essentially nowhere, a last vestige of a quickly disappearing time. Inside, the swarm of daughters and long suffering wife buzz around, while the father finds some quiet sleeping in front of the television atop a sheepskin blanket.
The plot hangs upon the events of Wolfgang’s family, but really the focus is upon his oldest daughter, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) as she tries to both appease her dad while finding her own way. It’s this twist on the tropes of coming-of-age tales, intermingled with surreal television competitions and an almost angelic appearance by Monica Bellucci.
There’s not a tonne of story to hang onto, and this is part of why the first time through I found myself frankly checking out. Superficially there’s a lot of screaming and running around, as a bunch of dour and miserable family moments play out within the larger, overt (and political) context – you can’t buy authenticity, perhaps, but for the cynics in some of us maybe it’s not worth trying to buy in the first place.
Now, after some distance from the glare of the festival, the more quiet film, like its pastoral setting, is a far more enjoyable experience. It’s as if the film itself needs space to breathe, to allow the viewer to take it in on its own terms. On the face of it, it’s dull and repetitive, but given a chance its quiet rhythms and simple truths are quite engaging.
The general story line, a kind of “American Idol” but with different kinds of artisanal produce, felt silly and hackneyed my first time through, but appeared as positively surreal the second, its awkwardness befitting of the point the film’s trying to make.
Rohwacher’s style can be charitably described as documentary, and the almost muddy look and stilted composition at first was irritating, where on second look seemed to contrast well with the warmly lit scenes that take place within the necropolis.
Yes, this is a film that frustrates more than it fascinates at first, and it’s a work that demands a patience that I frankly did not have the first time round. I was pleasantly surprised to be captivated by it a year on, finding even the braying of the camel and buzzing of the bees to be more welcome once freed from the intensity festival life. It’s a delicate film that doesn’t hold up well to other, perhaps more bombastic (and ambitious) films. Seen on its own, freed from overt comparisons to other, more electric films, The Wonders manages to be a surprisingly engaging if delicate treat.
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