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NYFF 2014. Alice Rohrwacher's "The Wonders"

The Grand Jury Prize winner at Cannes sees its North American premiere.

I must admit upfront that I turned off Alice Rohrwacher's previous film, 2011's Corpo celeste, after an hour or so, made frustrated and fidgety by the lack of mise en scène (to appropriate Jacques Rivette's definition of the much-contested term, used drolly in reference to the cinema of Joseph L. Mankiewicz). So I certainly may be approaching her follow-up, The Wonders—playing in the New York Film Festival after being well-regarded and award-winning in competition at Cannes this year—with a bias. But indeed I found much of the same problems here that I found in the earlier film, and while her Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner is an improvement in imagemaking, it still has a way to go in filmmaking.

Much of the slovenly camerawork and garbled, unmotivated editing remains, draining an already naturally lackadaisical story of any sense of urgency, but with these more forceful images Rohrwacher holds up her winsome picture at a quietly delicate place overlapping countryside farming tale, Italian cultural parody, mystical fable, and hippie commune saga. These touchstones, all united in the single setting of a beekeeping family of indeterminate Italian-German-French origin (and delightfully deploying all three languages at will), suggest the ambition of the film, a minor key magical realism casually using surreal flourishes in its picturing of cross-border families, rural food production, and familial and cultural isolation. A mostly plotless film, the narrative moves forward due to family tension over, and eventual entrance into, a tacky television program proclaiming the glories of Italian culture coming from the historically mysterious Etruscan region. These scenes are the pinnacle of the film's flights of fancy, gilded B-movie level costume and set design presided over by majestic host-goddess-queen Monica Bellucci in a local island necropolis.

Bees swarming the frame, dancing along with the grain of the Super 16mm film, some captured details of honey production, a white pick-up truck in long shot, the sun-blanched and bleached light quality of this area of Italy, the irascible, bigoted father's lean frame, ogre beard, balding head and preference for often going about without pants: all glanced, pointed images and iconography which punch out from the film, counteracting in some moments the effects of the slipshod, catch-as-catch-can framing, blocking, editing, and unsteady camera. This isn't just a technical critique, as these latter qualities expand into and affect the mise en scène: the marriage between the family's husband and wife is vague enough to be rendered implausible, a treatment of their relationship that's analogous to the film's definition and characterization of its central, sprawling family of (mostly) girls, of the local countryside, of the casually mentioned economy and politics. The whole endeavor verges, intangibly, on something greater than its scattered images, something mysterious, allegorical, mythical. Certainly its final plunge into the night and adolescent rituals of flight, searching, and consummated kinship strike a “magical” cord without, at least to me, revealing what its aims are, what is at stake, what, precisely, is the source or direction or quality of the magic. All is as diffuse as the bees in the air.

But yet we still have things like the joy of young girls improvising on the edge of the frame, intuitive suggestions of communal sisterhood, Alba Rohrwacher's (indeed, the director's sister) blonde, mop-topped, slit-eyed visage worthy of medieval portraiture, and the early Renaissance demureness of the eldest daughter, whose eyes are full of burgeoning adult consciousness and sensitivity. The Wonders arrests when catching these fleet, vivid images as they dance in and out of its chaotic assembly, making me consider if the chaos begets "the wonders," or the other way around.

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