Review: 'The Wonders' creates a visually rich world between dream and reality

 26 Nov 2015 - 11:36

Review:  'The Wonders' creates a visually rich world between dream and reality
Maria Alexandra Lungu in "The Wonders."


By Ann Hornaday
An otherworldly haze suffuses "The Wonders," a coming-of-age tale that occupies an enticing realm between dream and reality. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, this well-acted family drama offers moments of arresting imagery that, finally, can't overcome a frustratingly flimsy story.
A prizewinner at Cannes last year, "The Wonders" represents both the strengths and weaknesses of films that favor wildly imaginative visuals to the detriment of conventional values like structure and fully realized characters. It's a woozy, absorbing journey whose destination is ambiguous by design.
"The Wonders" centers on Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), a teenager who lives with her family of beekeepers in the countryside in Tuscany. Led by an eccentric, adamantly off-the-grid patriarch (her parents are played by Sam Louwyck and the filmmaker's sister, Alba), Geso's family lives in an almost feral universe entirely of their own creation, a state of isolation that the curious, capable Geso is beginning to chafe against. When events conspire to let the outside world in, Geso must navigate a tentative, sometimes willful journey between connection and separation familiar to most adolescents, albeit under dramatically heightened circumstances.
As inspired by Sofia Coppola and Terrence Malick as by Federico Fellini, Rohrwacher does an extraordinary job of inviting viewers into Geso's weird, often wonderfully poetic experience: She creates potent, indelibly lyrical images, such as when the teenage heroine allows a bee to emerge from her mouth and alight on her face, or when the honey operation goes gooily awry across the expanse of a farmhouse floor. First-time actress Lungu delivers a deeply sensitive, sympathetic portrayal of a young woman bravely striking out on her own, even if that means disappointing her proudly artisanal parents.
For all of her rich visual gifts, however, Rohrwacher allows the story to wander, hitting narrative cul de sacs that she ultimately can't convincingly escape. A chance encounter, involving a character played by Monica Bellucci, and its ensuing events feel more schematically convenient than genuinely motivated.
Structurally, "The Wonders" suffers from awkward bulges and sags, especially toward the end. Still, it's a beautiful, richly imagined ride that doesn't end as much as evaporate into a dreamlike puff of smoke.
Two and a half stars. In Italian with subtitles. (110 minutes)
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
The Washington Post