“When he’s not here we can breathe, right?”
The running joke throughout Alice Rohrwacher’s Le meraviglie [The Wonders] is that eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lingu) is in charge of the family. It’s a cutely simple way in which parents Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) can disarm outsiders threatening their livelihood. The family is struggling so it’s easy to position a child as the honey business’ face because Dad’s anything but warm and inviting. But Gelsomina is of the age where quiet acquiesce has become impossible despite truly loving her work as a beekeeper. She’s keenly aware that her sisters are too young to care, father too stubborn to evolve, and mother more talk than action. To her the answer to their problems is simple: a reality TV competition offering a bag of cash.
Know that this is her decision because the synopsis is very misleading. The producers posit that, “The dynamic of their overcrowded household is disrupted by the simultaneous arrival of a silently troubled teenaged boy taken in as a farmhand and a reality TV show intent on showcasing the family.” This makes it seem as though these aspects bear down on them when in fact they orchestrate both. The boy (Luis Huilca‘s Martin) isn’t silent because of psychological trauma: he’s a German ward of the state facing detention that doesn’t understand the language. And the talent show hosted by Monica Bellucci‘s Milly Catena unearthing Tuscan farmland wonders (family and product) hardly seeks them out. Gelsomina applies and therefore invites them in to her father’s insecure rage.
These two forces merely present the family—namely Gelsomina—a chance to peer below the surface at what works and what doesn’t. Much of the latter stems from Wolfgang’s lack of a son, a reality the Italian townspeople constantly throw at him since there are now four daughters in tow. What he refuses to acknowledge openly is how great Gelsomina is at the work. The girl takes pride in it, has hardened herself to yell at the lazily avoidant Marinella (Agnese Graziani) trying to escape responsibility, and possibly to her detriment embraced this man’s ways too fully. While Marinella and youngsters Luna (Maris Stella Morrow) and Cate (Eva Lea Pace Morrow) enjoy themselves goofing off, Gelsomina seems unaccustomed to pleasure knowing the honey bucket needs changing.
The competition therefore provides a best of both worlds scenario wherein she can enjoy the glamour of celebrity with Milly’s sea-foam hair while doing what she loves: harvesting honey. Winning the extra money will help them keep the farm and possibly ease Dad’s temper from exploding when a drop of honey is wasted on the laboratory floor. It could also prove she’s as good as a son ever could be by continuously putting the business first. Sadly Wolfgang doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t want the attention or outside assistance. Instead he recruits Martin’s potential—and the stipend received from boarding him—to be the muscle he’s coveted. Giving Gelsomina the responsibility to train the boy to virtually be her replacement is just salt in the wound.
What results is a depiction of the harsh living conditions under extreme stress these Italian farmers endure. Not only must they work ten times harder than someone in the city to scrape by for their family, but they also have to look over their shoulders as entities seeking to steal their land sabotage their success. Just having a caricatured gaudy television show enter to profit from their “quaintness” is enough to see the odds stacked against them because you know it’s bad when the affluent choose you to exploit as a way to assuage their guilt. The juxtaposition of their glamourizing with cartoonish costumes against reality’s deplorable conditions is glaring. For a young girl like Gelsomina, though, the opportunity to see that other side means everything.
It’s therefore a coming-of-age drama as she finds herself in the ensuing chaos. Truth be told, the TV show itself comprises maybe ten minutes of the almost two-hour run-time. The rest is Gelsomina traversing her dueling lives. Fun is so foreign that she’s shy at a friend’s house and refuses to follow said friend later on for entertainment when saddled with the duty of selling honey despite fellow employee Cocò (Sabine Timoteo) doing just fine by herself. There’s a constant fear that Wolfgang will begin looking at her with the same disdain he does her siblings, the inclusion of Martin exacerbating that feeling ten-fold. One misstep and she may not be able to work the bees—something she desperately wants to do despite its strain on her childhood.
The rub is that Gelsomina is the head of household. She’s the best of them and firmly entrenched in both youth and adulthood. It’s hard for her to get them to admit that, though, when it’s easier to blame her instead. She’s the only one willing to let Marinella prove herself—despite the girl wanting to do anything but—and gets the brunt of the anger when mistakes happen. But why wouldn’t she want to get her sister involved in the business? Why wouldn’t she want her sister to find the same love, albeit work related, she has earned from their father? Everything Gelsomina does is for the family whether it works or not. The hope is that they’ll finally acknowledge it without the usual patronizing grin.
It’s a brilliant turn for Lungu in her acting debut. She has a natural way of projecting the innocence of youth beneath the exterior of an otherwise experienced craftsman. We feel for her when accidents happen because we understand the situation. She’s given so much responsibility that Wolfgang can’t quite remember she isn’t ready to take it all on as his second in command when no one is assisting her below. Kids are forgetful, but to have a lapse of memory here is to risk losing money necessary to survive. Everything falls on her, even Wolfgang’s poorly thought out scheme to bring joy to the household with a camel—the animal Gelsomina liked many years before. The true wonder is retaining her sanity while everyone else falls apart.
courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories