Her face has a classical, statuesque beauty, as if she had been sculpted by an ancient artist to depict perhaps a goddess, or a noble lady of Rome. And yet Gelsomina, the lead character of The Wonders (played by Maria Alexandra Lungu), has no pretensions to grandeur. She’s the twelve-year-old firstborn daughter of a family of eco-hippie beekeepers living on a farm in central Italy, who spends her days working hard in the family honey-making business and minding her three younger sisters.
Gelso’s father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a lanky German-speaking transplant given to loud outbursts, seems categorically disorganized and easily flustered, yet he obviously loves his brood. Wolfgang’s wife Angelica — played by Alba Rohrwacher, sister of Alice Rohrwacher, the film’s writer-director — is the all-embracing shepherdess of the little clan, patiently balancing concern for her daughters’ welfare with a growing skepticism about the life they all lead. The coastal region where Tuscany meets Lazio, with its soft meadows and dramatic ruins, is the ideal setting for such an earthy fable. Gelso’s story has the freshness of happenstance combined with the gravitational pull of mythology.
After the girls witness a TV commercial shoot starring actress Monica Bellucci dressed as a foamy sea goddess, Gelsomina is determined to enter the upcoming “Countryside Wonders,” a costumed pageant honoring the Etruscan heritage of the place, in which local farm products are judged for their authenticity. But her father dismisses it as bullshit boosterism, and Gelso sulks as she labors with the beehives.
Adding to the hubbub is a taciturn preteen boy named Martin (Luis Huilca Logroño), who arrives in the custody of a social worker; Wolfgang has agreed to take him in as a foster child, solely for the money. In a more conventional coming-of-age scenario, Gelso and Martin might fall in love, but the gods have different plans for them. The strongest remaining subplot, other than the mysterious illness that’s killing the family’s bees, is the phenomenon of city people moving into the region and driving up land prices. Neighboring farmers feel threatened. By comparison, Gelsomina and her family represent a sort of “organic gentrification.”
Young actress Lungu, from a Romanian family now living in Italy, was discovered by director Rohrwacher (herself a hybrid Italian) in a catechism class. She establishes herself as the focus of the action not with speeches or bold gestures, but quietly, by means of her steadfast presence, busily completing tasks. Gelso’s natural authority is succinctly expressed by a simple, childlike “farmer’s daughter” trick she performs — as she stands perfectly still in front of onlookers, bees emerge from her mouth and crawl on her face. No matter what minor catastrophes occur, we’re never, ever, worried about Gelsomina. She’s the grounded one, the true head of the family, the muse of the beehives. And she has her whole enchanted life ahead of her.
Filmmaker Rohrwacher shies away from obvious magic realism in painting her 21st-century folk tale, but the “miracles” accumulate. Chief among these is the idea that a simple-yet-complex, ordinary-but-remarkable family such as Gelsomina’s can exist at all. In the press notes, Rohrwacher describes her operating principle as the sense of wonder, “that which hinges between the earthly world and the fantastic.” Powerful, sophisticated filmmakers spend vast amounts of money trying to manufacture wonder, but very, very few of them can come close to what Rohrwacher does with a few giggling children, some bees, a lone camel, the lush green fields north of Rome, and one perfectly composed face.