Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "The Wonders"

Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Runtime: 110 minutes

There's no denying the rugged beauty of Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, but whether or not that beauty is worth the time of day is less certain. After a solid start, Rohrwacher's second film takes a turn into iffy dream logic that ends the film on a muddled note. Though the film's conclusion is filled with a hazy sense of tragedy, the ambiguities that arise at the end are more frustrating than compelling.

Set in rural Italy, The Wonders initially has the quiet confidence of its protagonist, 12 year old Gelsomina (Maria Lungu). The oldest daughter of a pair of beekeepers, Gelsomina does her best to win the approval of her stern father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck). Wolfgang longs for a son but he and his wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) continue to churn out daughters. And, aside from Gelsomina, they don't seem terribly adept at learning the tricks of tending to the family beehives or harvesting honey. So even when Gelsomina does her best and keeps things on the family farm running, she's never given the paternal approval that she really deserves. 

Things at the farm continue as usual until Gelsomina stumbles across the set of a flashy TV commercial promoting an upcoming contest. Said contest will bring together local families to show off their authentic, homemade products, with the winning family earning a fat load of cash. Gelsomina sees a chance for escape, while Wolfgang only sees a tacky waste of time. 

Rather than drag the viewer through the expected clashes between father and daughter, Rohrwacher puts off the contest for as long as possible, which is mostly beneficial. Gelsomina and her sisters have a free-spirited, natural chemistry on screen, and The Wonders is at its best when it lays back and watches the family work and play. Lungu and the other young actors never feel too coached, and their interactions consistently ring true. The arrival of a German foster child (a boy) adds an extra layer to the drama, forcing Gelsomina to work alongside a manifestation of the child Wolfgang never got to call his own. Louwyck and Rohrwacher make an odd but interesting pair as the mismatched parents, and the former thankfully refrains from turning Wolfgang into an easy villain. Rohrwacher (the director) may have her points of view as to who's right and wrong, but she never forces any interpretation on the viewer or her actors. Each person has their reasons for wanting to do things their way, and those reasons are always rooted in the context of the story.

Italian life is often dramatized as obscenely opulent (The Great Beauty) or violent (Gomorrah, any other mob-related movie in the past decade). The disaffected working class tend to get left behind on the big screen, so it's admirable of Rohrwacher to completely root her story in a way of life that's struggling to compete with modernity. The family's financial difficulties are given proper exploration without turning the film into a civics lecture. When something goes wrong - like when an entire vat of honey overflows - it comes across as a real loss, rather than a minor inconvenience. 

Unfortunately, all of that sensitivity goes out of the window once the family acquiesces to Gelsomina's determination and goes to the contest. It starts as a send up of gaudy TV fakery, and the way such contests prey on the hopes and dreams of people scraping by to make a living. But once Gelsomina's aunt Coco (Sabine Timoteo) scares off the German foster child, The Wonders starts throwing in scenes that feel like they belong in a different film. The scenes involve blurry distinctions between dream and reality, and even though they're quite nice, they arrive with no real warning. There's no time to become even remotely anchored in the different layers of reality, so the impact of the scenes is often muted. Rohrwacher's is gently heartbreaking, but it screws with one's perception of events that it's difficult to become fully invested. There isn't room enough to connect with the film's emotions, because unlike young Gelsomina, The Wonders loses confidence in the idea that it's perfectly fine the way it is. 

Grade: C+

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