The director Alice Rohrwacher, arguably one of the most interesting Italian filmmakers of the day, is having her moment. The Wonders (Le meraviglie) won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, and Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice) won Best Screenplay there in 2018. The Wonders tells the story of a family of beekeepers in rural Italy. Wolfgang (played menacingly by the German actor Sam Louwyck), Angelica (played by an exquisite Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister), and their four daughters live just over the poverty line by selling bees and honey and growing their own food. The two older girls, Marinella and the oldest sister, Gelsomina, in particular, play a crucial role in the success, such as it is, of the family enterprise. And indeed, it is Gelsomina–whose name is a reference to Giulietta Masina’s character in Fellini’s La strada (1954)–who does most of the heavy lifting in the family (and in the film). Sensible, hardworking, and watchful in the way of early adolescents, Gelsomina (Alexandra Maria Longu) is also the source of one of the film’s several “wonders”: demonstrating an uncanny intimacy with the world of bees, she is able to hold them in her mouth and allow them to walk on her face without being stung.
She is also the first to succumb to another, even more spectacular “wonder”–namely, the tinsel and glitter glamour of a trashy, low-budget television show, Land of Wonders, in which local farmer families compete to demonstrate their commitment to local cultural heritage (read: to be picturesque) for cash prizes. Against her father’s wishes, she enters the family in the competition, for which they must dress in kitschy faux Etruscan costumes and describe their products on camera. Needless to say, they fail miserably when Wolfgang, usually so quick to spout doomsday prophecies that his “back to the land” ethos is meant to resist, stammers and stutters in front of the camera, only to be saved by Gelsomina’s bee trick. These are the emotional stakes of the film: the encounter between Wolfgang and Angelica’s ruralist worldview and modern, consumer society.
Put in those terms, however, the conflict loses much of its nuance. For The Wonders is not the usual encroachment narrative lamenting the loss of traditional values in the face of rampant capitalism. On the contrary, Gelsomina’s world is tough and thankless. The land her family works is not a romanticized, idyllic garden but muddy, bleak, and a constant battleground on which to fight for subsistence. As one of Wolfgang’s German friends, a remnant from the couple’s apparently more politically engaged youth, comments, “You used to fight, now you just clean and produce.” What’s more, Wolfgang and Angelica don’t live off the land by necessity, but by choice, the logical result of their vaguely apocalyptic philosophy. It was nonetheless perhaps not the most successful choice, considering their limited farming skills and their temperaments (his domineering and angry, hers long-suffering). Especially telling is Wolfgang’s astonishing impracticality, as when he buys Gelsomina a camel as a reward for her hard work. Baffled by new EU laws governing the food-preparation hygiene standards, they are eventually forced to sell the house and sleep on the lawn with the camel. It is, in short, a failed experiment.
Nor does the lure of the modern appear to be particularly evil. Gelsomina’s interactions with a more sophisticated friend are benign; they watch television on the living-room couch, bemusedly observe their male classmates’ demonstrations of middle-school bravado with their motor scooters, and work at the local agricultural fair. Gelsomina, and especially her little sister Marinella, listen to anodyne pop music in which a breathless female voice sings of undying devotion; it’s all pretty innocent. The attraction of modern mainstream life is most directly embodied by Milly, the platinum-wigged, spangled, and bedazzling host of Land of Wonders. Played by the Italian superstar Monica Bellucci, Milly is beautiful and melancholy, gamely running through her lines and applauding the yokels whose ultimate desire is to turn their rundown farms into expensive bed-and-breakfasts, ideally with a large female clientele to provide potential wives. Her interest in the girls, though apparently authentic, is feeble and inconsequential, consisting of the gift of some flyers advertising the television program and a used hairpin.
Indeed, the program is a monument to low production values. Teenage dancers perform high school choreography between contestants. The jury consists of local authorities who spout platitudes about the old days. Otherwise dignified men are made to dress in fake animal skins and wolf headdresses more reminiscent of Native American than Etruscan origins, and the women in snake-themed jewelry and pastel-colored nymph costumes in a Cleopatra–Greek goddess mashup. Yet there are two moments of transcendence in this most unlikely setting. The first is Gelsomina’s bee trick, accompanied by the extraordinary whistling of Martin, a German teenager with a criminal record who is being fostered by Gelsomina’s family for money. The second, more moving, event is the traditional song, haunting and harmonically complex, sung by four women, including the ancient and reluctant grandmother of the wolf-head-dressed contestant. They have been essentially coerced into singing by the program’s producers, and the film does not treat the song with any particular reverence, for which reason this is perhaps the film’s clearest example of its attitude toward rural tradition, its clear-eyed acceptance of the rarity–as well as the authenticity–of its beauty.
Ultimately, the film’s concern seems to be with agency. Characters are consistently confronted with the need to make choices, starting with the decision by the educated Wolfgang and Angelica not to return to the land but to commit to inhabiting it in the first instance. Will the family bring the honey production facility up to code? Will Martin and the peasant women whistle and sing or remain silent? Will the family enter the television contest? Will Wolfgang “fight,” or continue to “clean and produce”? Will Angelica stay with Wolfgang, or leave him? Here the reference to Fellini seems relevant as well, since the Gelsomina of La strada spends the film in near continuous doubt about whether to stay or leave the burlish, womanizing performer, her partner (or more precisely, her owner) Zampanò.
Beyond La strada, Fellini is a crucial point of reference for The Wonders, since so many of his films, from The White Sheik (1952) to Amarcord (1973) to Ginger and Fred (1986), deal with the clash between reality and the glamourizing effects of representation, whether in fotoromanzi (romances in comic-strip form), in cinema, or on television. Similarly, we note Milly’s melancholy and her superficial glamour. When she slowly and ponderously removes her massive wig of platinum-blond coils, she reveals a much more modest head of hair, plastered down with pins, as Gelsomina observes with astonishment her tired transformation. We might also mention Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978), which presents an equally unromanticized view of traditional rural life. These references are more than simple homages to Fellini and Olmi; Rohrwacher here is tapping into a long-standing literary and cinematic concern with Italian national and regional identities, here articulated as a tension around cultural patrimony.
Happy as Lazzaro, also written by Rohrwacher and starring her sister Alba, presents a more extreme case of the collision of urban and rural worlds. It tells the story of Lazzaro, an orphaned young man being raised in a community of sharecroppers working in indentured servitude for a marchioness, though unbeknownst to them the sharecropping, or mezzadria, system has long been outlawed. This film is even less nostalgic about country living than The Wonders; the farmers of the ironically named estate of Inviolata (literally, “unviolated, intact, uncorrupt”) live promiscuously, in near squalor and in crippling debt.