LE MERAVIGLIE (The Wonders) directed by Alice Rohrwacher (Italy, 2014)
Le Meraviglie is an unconventional drama set in a contemporary Tuscan landscape which is a far cry from the picturesque scenery you find in travel brochures.
It’s the kind of modest, low-budget independent movie that could easily disappear without trace yet should gain wider recognition after winning the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The somewhat contrived, plot revolves around the working life of a bee farmer of German origin and his family. This man (Sam Louwyk) clings to the anachronistic and primitive lifestyle placing a high value in self-sufficiency. His bark is worse than his bite but he is still not a man to get on the wrong side of.
His paternal role is a fragile one and he cannot fail to be cognizant of the fact that the world around him is changing fast. The lack of separation between life and work in this female dominated household is a difficult discipline to maintain.
This harsh and humorless world is seen mainly through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest of his four daughters who help, and sometimes hinder, in producing honey.
The director’s older sister Alba plays the role of the mother who is increasingly frustrated by her dour and stubborn husband.
Modernity intrudes in the form of a TV reality show which, unbeknownst to the father, the young girls sign up to participate in. In a non too convincing cameo, Monica Bellucci plays a glamorous presenter of the show (Il Paese delle meraviglie – the land of wonders) which, in the name of light entertainment, turns real lives into a kitsch parody of tradition.
Alice Rohrwacher belongs to a new generation of filmmakers who are helping rejuvenate and redefine Italian cinema. Le Meraviglie is only her second full length movie after Corpo Celeste (2011). She has stated that the film is not designed to be autobiographical even though there are strong links to her background. She was born in 1982 in Fiesole, Tuscany and her German father worked as a beekeeper.
The surreal touches show her to be an ambitious director even though not all the experimental touches come off. For example, it is not entirely clear why the father and ,at the end, the whole family sleep on a mattress outdoors. Perhaps the clue to their eccentric nocturnal habits lies in the final shot of the house, decaying and apparently deserted which suggests this whole way of life is fading.
The focus of the movie is on nuances of character rather that an incident packed plot. The absence of dramatic tension is both the movie’s strength and weakness. It effectively creates a claustrophobic naturalistic setting but I found the film to be too slow-paced and lacking in narrative drive.