Cannes Special: The Wonders
Can a film covered in honey be bitter? To answer the question we need to retrace the carbon footprints that nature and pre-industrial societies left on the machinery of cinema and the stories that came out of its factories. The cultural dimension of the “agrarian question” has crossed paths with the history of postwar Italian cinema on a regular basis, sparking debates and speculations on the value and supposed idyllic nature of pre-consumerist life. For a country still preserving in its living memory the recollections of a life organized around the cycles of nature, progress has always occupied an ambivalent place in the national subconscious. A strange mix of backward Catholicism and vulgar Marxism has often viewed technological progress with a certain degree of suspicion, barring some exceptions (the Futurists, for instance). The passage from rural to consumer society, still relatively fresh in Italy's short memory, was characterized by a nostalgic reluctance when not opposed in the name of conservative anxiety.
Sectors of Italy's cinematic elite were not exempt from this reactionary nostalgia which implicitly saw agricultural societies as intrinsically happier and less corrupted than modern ones, especially in moral terms. From Bertolucci's fetishistic idealization of peasantry in 1900 to Pasolini's sensualist absolution of the underclasses, passing through Ermanno Olmi's tender obsession with pastoral stories, Italian cinema has consistently and naively romanticized non-industrial life. Neorealism too had insistently idealized the supposed virtues of the impoverished while always making sure never to examine the structural causes of poverty, let alone depicting its real, ugly face. Needless to say, none of these directors ever woke up at five in the morning to hoe the ground under the scorching sun all day long and end up in bed with blisters on their hands and very little in their stomachs. Ironically, it took a (literally) aristocratic director like Luchino Visconti to portray accurately the hardships of pre-industrial life and the provincial hypocrisy within its communities in La Terra Trema. Visconti also lucidly explored the painful and conflicted passage from rural life to modernity, countryside to the city, south to north in Rocco and His Brothers, one of the greatest cinematic renditions of that crucial phase in modern Italian history.
The romantic infatuation with nature and the life that revolves around it, away from the noise of progress, is not an exclusive prerogative of Italian directors. At a time when the bright promises of modernization have not only been dashed but have ushered in a dystopian scenario of imminent catastrophe and corporate totalitarianism, the lure of a life (or even better a film) far away from the gentrified nightmare of our cities is enjoying a certain popularity. Films like those of Ben Rivers, for instance, convey this utopian illusion whereby freedom apparently can only be found in the wilderness, far from civilization, ideally alone. This kind of primitivist fantasy and the aesthetic reverence with which it’s depicted bespeaks a hip resignation and capitulation to a nihilistic escapism. Dare I suggest that even the universal cinephiliac admiration for the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, dare I insinuate, is symptomatic of a rather desperate need for holistic authenticity, for the contemplative dimension that our daily lives have been robbed of. Though many of us watching these films would have a hard time dealing with, say, a frog, from the safe distance that a screen always puts between us and reality we revel in and marvel at the bucolic poetry of life and its natural unfolding. Traumatized by the severed bond between us (as an animal species, after all), and what once used to be our habitat, nature, we long for a lost balance, a betrayed, natural harmony. The truth is that nature is neither harmonic nor intrinsically fit to give us a freer existence; quite to the contrary, nature’s life cycles are often relentless, physically taxing, and poetry-free.
If the separation from agrarian life has been traumatic, no amount of slow food will render the reverse journey any less problematic. Though the overexploitation of shrinking natural resources will somehow force us into a probably painful reorganization of life, there is no lost Eden to return to. For the wonders of nature are ugly indeed, as Alice Rohwacher's new feature candidly suggests. Rohwacher's The Wonders (Le Meraviglie) tells a genetically modified story, hard to digest or process, which leaves a bitter aftertaste lingering in the spectator's mouth. Here is a film that the slow-food generation will choke on, a cultural land-mine to shake the rotten foundations of the Eataly franchise, a film that shows, in simpler and more sinister words, how far from nature we have irremediably grown. Shot with a documentary-like attention to detail, dreamt like a nightmare, The Wonders is an introspective film that discreetly gazes at the surface of objects and human relations to unearth the profound complexities behind them.
“The earth is dying!” the apocalyptic beekeeper Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) shouts to a deaf planet in the film’s opening, as the distant menace of hunters' rifles echoes in the darkness. Surrounded by his daughters and bees, Wolfgang lives with his extended family in a farm in central Italy (the film was shot in Umbria); together they produce and sell honey, but that doesn't seem to do the trick as far as the family finances are concerned. Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungo), the oldest daughter, is a pivotal asset in the life of the family and its business despite her tender age. Along with her father she tends to the laborious procedures of beekeeping and the related harvesting of honey, and though assisted by her younger sisters, she clearly bears the most responsibility. The mother (Alba Rohrwacher, the director's sister) sedatedly manages the household, tempering her husband’s recurring tantrums while trying to evenly distribute her loving warmth over all the family members.
One day, while bathing in the lake, Wolfgang and his daughters chance upon the set of a reality show presumably being filmed by a small crew from regional television. Starring as the centerpiece and host is Monica Bellucci, draped in a weird costume halfway between an Etruscan show girl and a Fellini-esque white sheik, calling for local farmers to enter a contest. Obviously struck by the primeval appeal of showbiz, no matter how tacky, the girls start nosing around the set, half shy and half excited, only to incur their short-tempered father’s ire. “Let's go,” Wolfgang tells his daughters. “It's all bullshit anyway.” But Gelsomina senses the glittering possibility of a life away from the monotonous and draining rituals of her family farm, and tries to convince her mother to take part in the TV contest.
Already wracked with feelings of displacement, the family takes on another member, a troubled boy sent there by social services. Wolfgang, until then the lone male in the family, seems happy to finally have a young man to train. Increasingly isolated in his almost demented quest for an ecologically sustainable existence, the family's life goes on as if haunted by the unfolding preparations for the TV show. A batch of bees dies due to the chemical products used by a neighbor, who's more interested in taking part in the faux-rural show than defending his land from speculation and mass farming. Despite Wolfgang's wrathful reluctance, the family will eventually sign up for the televisual horror show, which is an uncanny celebration of the region's Etruscan past and culinary tradition.
Words may not suffice to describe The Wonders simply because the very expressive core of the film relies more on symptoms than declarations. The director seems more interested in picking up moods than passing judgments. If anything, the film shows the quiet, anachronistic despair besieging those attempting to live according to nature in a world bent on its methodical destruction. Here we are in a world where the anthropological holocaust Pasolini warned us about has passed through and left in its wake a demented humanity, willing to swallow poison for their 15 minutes of celebrity. Even at its most grotesque, though, the film is never ironic; instead, there is always a mournful reverence when laying bare the contaminated body of rural life. The sequences involving the TV show are Fellini-esque bad trips, convincingly staging the terrifying depths into which Italian culture has plunged. When faced by the narcotizing lens of the camera, Wolfgang's vocal rage goes mute, unable to denounce the eco-illogical disaster in front of his eyes.
The acid colors of Hélène Louvart’s cinematography illustrate this artificial estrangement towards a poisoned land that has sold out to the hyperrealistic illusion of television and its perverted mantra, turning all authenticity into a profit-driven mendacity. Despite their natural methods, Wolfgang and his family will never produce “natural” honey, for the very planet under our feet is forever poisoned, in what would seem to be the unstated tragedy underlying the film.
The ecological dissonance of a landscape that's no longer natural is reflected in the surface imperfections of the film according to narrative elements and even languages are as arbitrary as a banana in a Swedish supermarket. With the dreams of green capitalism growing in popularity at the same speed as organic breweries and biological grocery stores pop up, The Wonders is a timely counterpoint to their ambiguous ideology and ultimate unfeasibility. Like a psychic wound, calmly unnerving, the film injures (or maybe unhinges) the romantic devices of the green economy, gently debunking its myths. Rohrwacher's film sketches the fundamental fallacy of anthropocentrism—its cultural suprematism and damage—and does away with the benevolent prejudices of eco-friendliness, leaving spectators alone in front of a man-made landscape increasingly unfit for life itself.