Interview: Alice Rohrwacher
At the Cannes press conference for The Wonders, the first thing director Alice Rohrwacher said was: “This is not an autobiographical film.” Certain elements are indeed drawn from her life—she grew up in the Italian countryside on a bee farm, and her father is German—but the story Rohrwacher tells is too complex and richly philosophical to be simply a confessional or a padded-out memoir. The eldest of four sisters, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) assists her father (Sam Louwyck) in the family’s apiary and keeps an eye on things whenever he’s away. She becomes fascinated by a televised regional contest that showcases artisanal foods—“The Countryside Wonders,” its host played by Monica Bellucci—and enters their household in a competition to appear on the show, against her father’s wishes. Though his politics are never spelled out, it’s obvious that their rural bohemian lifestyle is a remnant of some ultra-left-wing, commune-like ethos. Gelsomina’s place in the family is also challenged by the arrival of a German juvenile delinquent, who’s ostensibly there to be fostered and “rehabilitated” but instead gets used for free labor.
FILM COMMENT digital editor Violet Lucca spoke to Rohrwacher shortly after the film screened in the New York Film Festival, where her last film, Corpo Celeste (11), also had its U.S. premiere. The Wonders opens on Friday.
Television plays a big role in the film. Can you talk about your relationship to it?
On one hand, the thing about TV is its hypnotic power. I’m hypnotized by it. The same way that fairy tales have hypnotic power, because these magic elements hypnotize you. But in reality, these same elements can be quite dangerous and very negative. In Italian there’s a fairy tale called “Prezzemolina,” about a little girl who is given a series of tasks to save her mother from fairies, but all along her path are these little distractions, these little things that are trying to take her away from what she is trying to accomplish. I wanted to relieve myself of this—to say that TV is really inside a tomb, it’s already dead—and I wanted to look at it with a certain tenderness, as if it belonged to a kind of stone age.
But you didn’t grow up with TV?
How did you go about imagining how it looks in the film? It has a very distinct look.
There are many things we can imagine that we didn’t grow up with. For example, I didn’t grow up within the church or within organized religion, but that made me very free to look at it with fresh eyes in Corpo Celeste. I didn’t grow up with TV but that allows me to look at it with a sense of surprise. I’m looking at TV, not as something that is bad, although certainly in its history it has been very bad, but as something that is here now, something that I looked at etymologically as a captive animal.
You have a background in theater. How do you approach directing actors in the theater versus for a film?
I was only ever an assistant in the theater—I was a girl that brought the coffee. But I tried to bring a lot of coffee during this movie and sing some songs.
I think theater is something that, when it’s good, restores your trust in human beings and your trust in what happens in life, because there’s a relationship between the person that is watching and the person that is acting. In cinema it is this relationship between human beings and then between cinema and these human beings on screen.
You said the idea for this film came from Saskia Sassen’s book about how every city is becoming like a theme park. What drew you to that material? Was it more of an idea or an image?
I can’t have an idea without an image. They are so very deeply connected that I can’t say that I have an idea without there being an image connected to that idea.
And what was that image, or what sort of images did you get?
I realized that there is something that is happening to my country, with all of these attempts to preserve things that have survived. Preservation efforts are too focused on turning things into a museum—the idea of a monument as a symbolic concept, for the sake of attracting tourism. It is a shame, because, instead, what does have to be conserved, what has to be kept alive, is all of the life that is there, all of the things that are involved in that place, whether it is a public square or a movie theater or the theater itself. All of the things that surround that monument, rather than this sole focus on monuments themselves.
How involved are you in the editing process?
Well, I don’t really leave much choice [laughs]. In my case, I only shoot in one way. Other people get frustrated and say: “Try this other frame just for safety’s sake.” But I leave very little margin for the editing. And I always regret this. But while I’m shooting, I have this vision of the editing process with which I am involved daily.
What is that image? Or what makes you see something through the viewfinder and say, “That’s what I want”?
It’s very simple. I just ask myself: “Where am I? What is happening in front of me?” I’m like this very privileged traveler on this trip, and I have to react. I’m alive, I’m there, and I have to ask what is happening. I ask myself “Where am I” and not where is the story going and what is the viewer going to see. If I absolve my responsibility in showing my point of view, others will take on their responsibility for their points of view.
In terms of how the film looks, like the costumes, how did you communicate that?
I’m very picky.
But this is different from Corpo Celeste, where people were wearing everyday clothes, whereas this included more fantastical costumed portions.
Well, I’m fussy, as I was saying before. The costumes give a certain sensibility to the story, a particular meaning. If you look at the way I’m dressed today, I bought these shoes five years ago, my pants are new, my sister gave this shirt to me. The way we live cuts across different eras of time. In most films they try to be so specific about an era, so they choose things that only belong to that era, and it has a flattening effect. So instead I choose—in translating, [the translator] has been saying “I,” but I always say “we,” because I work with very weird people—we choose to focus on just a few elements that show you a lot about these people and how they passed clothes back and forth to each other: how the big sister gives something to the little sister, which then she gives to the mother, who then exchanges that to the father. You might see a shirt changing hands that way, and these portend the various ties that are behind these people. But there is also a very symbolic value in the way that I use color.
The symbolic aspect of the costumes is much more connected to fairy tales. For example, in scenes with the TV crew, the host [Monica Bellucci] is in white and all the men in black, which is a sort of childish element, but then we mix it up with a bit of realism. But these are magical elements.
So when you’re writing a film, how much is written and how much do you improvise or leave to chance?
Everything is written. Everything is deliberate and nothing is accidental. So even if something works it is also as a result of a choice.
There’s this saying in Hollywood, I think from W.C. Fields, that you should never work with children or animals, and in this film there are both. Did you experience any problems with that?
I think W.C. Fields must have had a very boring life. I had many problems, but I love problems. As soon as I see a problem, I go running towards it.
Look at the honey in the film. The honey is illegal in the film, but it is very good. The production of honey involves child labor, violation of health laws, but it is a very good honey. And that’s sort of like the way we worked. There are a lot of laws, and it wasn’t always possible to observe laws to the letter. You aren’t supposed to shoot with bees because then the insurance won’t cover you, because bees are considered a wild animal, and they cannot be put down right away, so they’re classified as dangerous. In Italy there is a day when no one works—including the police—which is August 15, so we shot all the scenes with the bees on August 15.
Why do you think that people so often confuse something that is personal with something that is autobiographical?
I think that we’re in pretty bad shape today, because people are no longer appreciating the complexity of words and of sentences. So you say “difficult” and everyone instantly thinks “hard,” and that’s a bad thing, difficulty. And we say “personal” and people identify that with “autobiographical,” and we lose a sense of nuance. It is very hard for people to believe that something can be personal without being a literal part of your personal history.
And do you think that problem is compounded because you’re one of the very few internationally known female directors?
What’s really laughable is that even if I were to make a film where people are mowing each other down left and right with machine guns, and I had one scene of a leaf falling from a tree, the critics would say it had a delicate feminine gaze and was a very sensitive picture. I think there is this desire to identify only one quality of womanhood and of being feminine as being feminine out of all the things that are being found. That is what’s happening with this film, this attempt to find this one female aspect to the film, when in fact everything is female. And since the traditional role of women is to be at home and to wash dishes and to talk about the family, then instantly the father is identified as my father, the mother as my mother—the type of questions you wouldn’t ask of a male director.
What are your plans after this?
Tonight? Let’s go to a place with music, please.