Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Wonders (Le meraviglie)

THE WONDERS (Le meraviglie)                  B+                                          
Italy  Switzerland  Germany  (110 mi)  2014  d:  Alice Rohrwacher             Official site [Italy]

While there are notorious brother combinations in cinema, the Lumière brothers, the Marx brothers, the Taviani brothers, the Dardennes brothers, Albert and David Maysles, Tony and Ridley Scott, John Michael and Martin McDonagh, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, or the Coen brothers, to name a few, also brother and sister combinations in Andy and transgender sister Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski, Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine, John and Joan Cusack, or Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, also a mixed bunch like the Arquette, Barrymore, Carradine, Fonda, Huston, Redgrave, Cassavetes, or Coppola families.  Sister combinations are rare, but would have to include Canadian twin sisters, Jen and Sylvia Soska, who wrote and directed American Mary  (2012), Meg and Jennifer Tilly, and the Ephron sisters, writer/director Nora and Delia, who sometimes shared writing credits, such as YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998).  To this group we would have to add the Rohrwacher sisters, where Italian writer/director Alice directs her older sister Alba in this film, which adds an unmistakable element of intimacy and familiarity.  Something of an astute choice by a jury led by Jane Campion, this was the Grand Prix (2nd Place) winner at Cannes in 2014, won by Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu), with a shared 3rd prize going to Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D (Adieu au langage), where it’s taken this film a year longer than the others to be screened internationally.  Part of the problem is the often repeated criticism of a lack of female directors at Cannes, which only exposes the larger issue, which is the festival’s growing trend to cling to its short list of established directors that are routinely invited back into competition, placing less importance on new discoveries, where rising talent inevitably ends up screening out of competition in the less glamorous categories where they are rarely awarded for the distinctly diverse voices they bring to the festival.  Thankfully, this was an exception, though the smaller scale and intimate nature of the subject may leave this film with a more limited viewing audience than the others, a German, Swiss, Italian production, produced by Oscilloscope Pictures in the United States, a production company that distributes Kelly Reichardt films, for instance, or smaller independent films like the equally exquisite These Birds Walk (2013), Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2013), or Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)  (2015), which simply can’t match the financial backing of bigger name films.     

Described by the director as “Personal, not autobiographical,” claiming male directors would not even be asked this question, this is a more challenging and delicate work, mystifyingly strange and atmospheric, set in the isolation and openness of the Tuscan countryside where neighbors are rarely ever seen, centering around an offbeat family where the transplanted German father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) actually sleeps outdoors under the stars, where he is viewed as something of an outsider continually barking out orders at his family all day long, seemingly never satisfied with their efforts, while his much calmer wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and 4 children (all girls), along with his wife’s sister Cocò (Sabine Timoteo), all sleep inside their run down farmhouse that they are on the verge of losing from lack of payment.  While her previous film CORPO CELESTE (2011) premiered at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight, another impressive coming-of-age portrait of a preteen girl, this story centers around the life of conscientiously soft-spoken Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), which was Giuletta Masina’s name in Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954), played with more subtle reserve by a young 12-year old, the oldest daughter who is for all practical purposes the head of the household, already running the family business of beekeeping, where her special talent is keeping a watchful eye on her younger sisters while making them all participate in the creation of honey.  Her role is interestingly modeled after older sister Alba, as the Tuscan born director was raised by a German father and an Italian mother, where they were, in fact, multilingual beekeepers, so what particularly stands out is the attention to detail, shot mostly using handheld cameras by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, where the overriding sense of naturalism is beautifully expressed in the social realist tradition where there isn’t an ounce of artifice anywhere to be seen.  That is, until they accidentally run into an on-location television photoshoot that borders on the surreal, adding an absurd element of reality TV spectacle and overreach, especially as dramatized by the female host Milly Catena, Monica Bellucci as a mythological goddess in an all-white Brünnhilde wig wearing any number of gigantic, misshapen hats on her head, usually surrounded by a cast of adoring servants dressed in togas or wearing laurel wreathes from ancient historical times, yet to Gelsomina, she’s the most beautiful woman that she’s ever seen.   

While there’s a mythical aura surrounding the promises of this TV show, called Village Wonders, where judges evaluate local products from the most “traditional” family for quality and authenticity, the first place prize money could actually save their farm.  Wolfgang refuses to participate on principle, as he doesn’t want outside sources meddling into his business, while Gelsomina doesn’t see the harm in signing up, especially when the family is so financially strapped that they take on a young teenage German boy named Martin (Luis Huilca Logrono) in order to receive parental foster payments, but the boy almost never speaks and comes with a questionable criminal background.  What Wolfgang doesn’t want the outside world to see is how he benefits from an existing system driven by child labor, where he routinely skirts laws and health standards regarding farm produce, as he can’t afford to upgrade, continuing to operate in an old-fashioned, backwards era manner where exploiting youth is his best option.  While a darker cloud is always hovering somewhere within the vicinity, the beauty of the film is how it so lovingly captures the elusiveness of youth, largely seen through the eyes of the young sisters who parade around the premises as if they own the place, where they are literally rooted to the land, each one an extension of the other, showing a surprising degree of sensitivity to how the world is seen with an almost magical innocence.  Even as they are called back into the house, the two youngest nonchalantly return as instructed, but not before they each trounce through the only mud puddle that can be seen lying in the middle of the road, where their giddy delight is one of the unspoken pleasures of the film.  Constantly filling the screen with their childlike curiosities, the film seems to accentuate the natural order of things, where Gelsomina guides the others with a firm but gentle hand, where whatever tumultuous relationship exists between her parents largely exists offscreen, where her father’s firecracker temper becomes expected after awhile, but she exists on a completely different rhythm altogether, showing an interest in Martin, even as the others generally avoid him, as he never says anything.  His quiet sensitivity matches her own reticence, where the intrusion of the vulgar realities from the TV show make a mockery of the instilled values that they embrace, leading to several scenes of near transcendent poetry, a dreamlike sequence where Martin runs away and gets lost on a nearby island, taking refuge in a cave at night, only to be discovered by Gelsomina, where the dancing shadows reflected on the illuminated walls lit by a burning fire suggest an altogether different mindset than what is portrayed onscreen, while the final shots, after everything has been sold or given away, reveal the bareness of an empty farmhouse, a graceful reminder of the life that once filled these rooms.  

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