I was roused to write a review of Le Meraviglie (The Wonders) by the wrong-headed, curmudgeonly appraisals of it on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review, courtesy of writers Susan Jeffreys and Rosie Boycott. That their audience is so much larger than mine is a real shame, because those who have trusted these august broadcasters’ opinions of the movie will be missing a rich cinematic experience.
The plot is fairly simple. A family of six, with a twentysomething helpmeet named Cocò, makes its living selling large quantities of honey produced in its rural homestead in Tuscany. While playing on the beach one day, the four daughters come across a TV crew filming an ad for upcoming TV show Il paese delle meraviglie (translated in the film as Countryside Wonders, though literally – and perhaps more fittingly, given the fictional show’s romanticisation of the Etruscan countryside – as Countryside of Wonders).
The daughters of the family, of whom the eldest is the wise-beyond-her-years Gelsomina, are rather taken with the show’s dreamy presenter, played by Monica Bellucci; Gelsomina secretly puts her family forward for the programme, risking alienating her German father Wolfgang, who is openly contemptuous of a show that seems pitched halfway between Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and The Great British Bake Off. The family’s way of life is threatened from within, thanks to Wolfgang’s general recalcitrance; and from without, thanks to tightening EU farming regulations, the encroachment of spangled televisual celebrity culture, and the arrival of a German delinquent named Martin, sent to stay with the family to keep him out of trouble.
Admittedly, any film synopsis containing the phrase ‘EU farming regulations’ is unlikely to be describing a scintillating thrill-fest of a movie. The film’s aims are fairly modest, though formally and thematically it recalls various masterpieces – Pather Panchali, in its poetic yet unsentimental examination of a fading time and place, and the intrusion of modern urbanity into parochial rurality; Le Fils in its shaky handheld camerawork, frequent wordlessness and focus on physical labour; Rocco e i suoi fratelli in its dissection of Italian family tensions exacerbated by a rural-urban divide; Cría Cuervos in its young female protagonist’s loss of innocence in a world in political flux; even Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, in its gentle critique of a coastal populace willing to exchange land and history for short-term gain (whether finance or fame).
Le Meraviglie, because it is as modest and genuine as its characters, is a film of comparable calibre to some of these films. I didn’t list them to suggest that Rohrwacher, who wrote and directed the film, is being derivative – merely that her film is extending a rich historical continuum, tugging these thematic and aesthetic threads together through her beautifully observed characters, who never seem like anything less than living, breathing people.
Though it’s clear where Rohrwacher’s sympathies lie – with the embattled rural family and much of what it stands for – she evokes rather than preaches. But for all the film’s documentary realism, it deals in magic on three levels: that experienced by the girls when they first see Bellucci’s character being filmed; that experienced by Gelsomina and Martin and by us (the audience) when the pair’s silhouettes are dancing, at once awkwardly and unselfconsciously, front-lit upon a cave wall near the film’s end; and that experienced by us in the film’s final shots, when we see the family bed go from containing the whole family to containing no-one at all, in one fluid, simple take that shifts its gaze from the bed only momentarily to regard the open farmland. Gelsomina’s unreciprocated whistling during this take is poignancy distilled. By now, the poeticised realism that was always latent (possibly because of the heat, the family bed is outside, a few hundred yards from the house) has become the mood and mode of the film, and we are under its spell.
Indeed, the film grows sweeter as it progresses, though despite honey being its central motif, it never seems sickly sweet. The incongruous pop song that plays over the credits somehow fits, but the abrupt introduction of its brash pop tones contrasts with the more insidious encroachment of modernity that takes place throughout the film. To her credit, though, Rohrwacher never dichotomises rurality and modernity – the mechanised vat that dispenses the honey into buckets, for instance, is crucial to the family’s production method, and yet is clearly a “modern” invention.
Rohrwacher observes human relations superbly; it’s never clear how Cocò is related to the family, but her interaction with the family members is so well-acted and believable that it doesn’t really matter. The ‘romance’ between Gelsomina and Martin is tastefully underplayed. Wolfgang is particularly well-drawn, by Sam Louwyck. His portrait of a parent and spouse at a dead end while trying to provide for his family put me unexpectedly in mind of Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake; his face is remarkably expressive, and when he realises Gelsomina’s “betrayal” – her submission of the family for the TV competition – his wordless expression is devastating. The 15-year-old Maria Alexandra Lungu provides the film’s eyes and heart as Gelsomina; it’s Lungu’s first film credit, and her performance is beautifully evocative. Bellucci’s role is practically a cameo, but she imbues it with the requisite pathos and fatigue.
At this point I’d like to address the criticisms aired by Jeffreys and Boycott to an audience of millions. The two are not film critics, but they are moviegoers, and so their opinions are useful. Nonetheless, their criticisms betray a fumbled, patronising and pathetically dismissive grasp of the film and its aims. Jeffreys, echoed by Boycott, calls the film ‘rubbish’, decrying Wolfgang’s poor language skills and thus missing a nuance of the character (more on that later). ‘Who’s Cocò?’ she asks, wanting things to be spelled out for her. ‘Who’s this boy [Martin] considered to be a dangerous criminal? He looks like he’s going to audition for a choir.’ Sorry, Susan – not all wayward lads are inked-up skinheads brandishing machetes and sporting threatening Cockney accents. ‘How can they possibly make a living out of this filthy honey produced in the most disgusting conditions?’ Since these aren’t really particularly strong criticisms, Susan, I’ll interpret them as effrontery at the idea that your breakfast condiments are produced and packaged by people who scoop up honey using their feet and who do not wash their hands – which, given that it’s taking place on an autarkic Italian farm providing for a market increasingly preoccupied with “organic” foods, isn’t really that far-fetched.
Presenter Tom Sutcliffe and musician Pat Kane are more sympathetic, but still a little off the mark. Kane calls it ‘low-rent Fellini’ and categorises it as ‘mumblecore’, suggesting he knows not whereof he speaks – the characters are perfectly audible, and the aesthetic/production far more Dardennes than Fellini. (Other than the Italian setting, I couldn’t find much of a parallel with Fellini at all.) Although Kane correctly diagnoses the film’s main preoccupation – our anxiety about the real in a world of increasing visual fabrications and falsities – he calls it ‘a little bit rambly’, underestimating the screenplay’s concision. And he damns it with faint praise by calling it ‘old leftie melancholy’, a dismissive description that might befit Ken Loach’s lesser films, but one that does not do justice to Rohrwacher’s truly beautiful movie.
Meanwhile, Sutcliffe thinks the film neo-realist until the scene in which Gelsomina scoops up litres of spilt honey with her hands and feet, which is apparently deeply symbolic, though how it’s symbolic he doesn’t say. But that’s not where the symbolism is. That’s the realism.
Anyway, I hope I’ve convinced any readers that the film is worth seeing. Some miscellaneous observations:
- The sound of buzzing bees in films usually adds tension, but in Le Meraviglie, after a while, it has an oddly calming effect.
- Language is used interestingly throughout the film. Wolfgang speaks in German with Cocò, and in French with his wife when they’re arguing and don’t want their kids to hear. The rest of the time, he speaks in Italian. Once again, Rohrwacher’s refusal to simplify is made visible: the family does not have agrarian blood. The parents are cosmopolitan – which contextualises the children’s yearning to not be bound by rurality.
- The old Italian obsession with geography and locality once again comes to the fore. The TV producers fetishize Etruscan villages, with some of the villagers (most notably a neighbour of Wolfgang’s) eagerly participating by playing up to local stereotypes.
- The very last shot of the film – an interior shot of the deserted home, specifically of the doorway in which Wolfgang stood and learned of Gelsomina’s “betrayal” – is beautifully done. It’s a full-colour shot, but the pallor of the wallpaper and the grim light give it a sepia-esque hue – appropriate for the note of nostalgia and loss on which the film ends.