Alice Rohrwacher makes me feel proud of my Italian origins - born in Tuscany to a German father and an Italian mother, she is a young director that matches Blasted favourite Lukas Moodysson with her ability to subtly depict female protagonists on the brink of adolescence: if you haven't seen her debut feature Corpo Celeste, we recommend you do at the earliest opportunity.
The Wonders ('Le Meraviglie') takes place in the Tuscan countryside over one summer in the 1990s, and is clearly a very personal film. Like the children in the film, Rohrwacher grew up on a bee farm, and would have been a young teenager when Ambra Angiolini's 'T'Appartengo' (the recurrent theme song) was a huge hit coming out the of the television monstrosity that was 'Non è la Rai'. A stronger identity than her own, somewhat absent mother, and diametrically opposed to her despot father, protagonist Gelsomina is considered the head of the family, and has a way with the bees - at one point in the film, she performs a trick that consists of keeping them in her mouth. The apiary itself is represented as an idyll, a perfect self-contained society that is contrasted with the family's own fragile equilibrium: dad Wolfgang is perennially angry at everyone, fears for the future of agricultural methods that are at the mercy of both industrialisation and EU laws, and can't deal with the fact that Gelsomina is growing up and craving to discover things that lie beyond the family unit (for a far more extreme portrayal of this theme, you could look into Yorgos Lanthimos' very dark and very funny Dogtooth).
To complicate things even further, Gelsomina becomes obsessed with taking part in a TV contest for local agriculture workers called "Countryside Wonders" after the family meet the crew filming an ad. The scene, crowned by a scintillating Monica Bellucci playing hostess Milly Catena in a costume that recalls Fellini's White Sheik, is one of the best and most incongruous of the whole film: popular culture begins and its cheap, faintly absurd signifiers begin to find their way into a so-far isolated world, equally fascinating and alarming its inhabitants. Rohrwacher refuses to spoon-feed her audience: as exemplified with her fascination with 'T'Appartengo' (it would be incredibly easy to simply ridicule the song, its singer, and what it exemplifies), she treats this 'invasion' in an ambivalent manner, neither celebrating or condemning it. For all the cheap artifice, Bellucci's Milly Catena could perhaps be seen as Gelsomina's very own Blue Fairy, a mystical creature that encourages her to look beyond, to rebel against a family milieu she is clearly outgrowing. Far from simply being a mere elegy for a way of life that's coming to an end, The Wonders refrains from idealising rural Italy (work is hard, and sometimes dangerous, even for the children) and opts for a subtler, far more nuanced take on the changes that are taking over Gelsomina's life: soon, she will no longer be a child, and the quasi-commune lifestyle her family leads will be obliterated by the forces of progress.
Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes, this film is our first highlight at this year's Glasgow Film Festival: minor scripting incongruities in the final sequences aside, this is a unique yet universal coming-of-age tale that we hope will captivate audiences all over the world.