AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review
The younger you are, the bigger your dreams. The realities of life haven’t shown themselves in full to you. You have ambition and drive. You know what it is you want, although you have no idea what kind of effort, work and luck needs to be put forth in order to achieve it. And when an authority figure dares to spit truths into your face, you lash out with defiance.
“The Wonders” is an Italian film about dreams. Not the kind of dreams where your teeth fall out, but dreams of achievement and dreams of escape. The heart of the film is a young girl named Gelosmina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). She’s about 14 years old. She lives with her family of famers in a tiny Italian village, making honey. She’s the oldest child and good enough within the family business that she’s her father’s number two (no, Gny. Sergeant Hartman, that doesn’t mean she ended up as a brown stain on the mattress), even granted the enviable task of wiping off the stingers from her father’s back after each encounter with the producers of their product. Although Gelsomina seems happy enough with her current situation, she pangs for more.
Her family is isolated to a degree to where they don’t particularly have neighbors. She doesn’t really have friends. She has a couple younger sisters. When the family runs into a commercial being filmed for a local contest called “The Wonders,” where laborers get to talk about their product and perform a little show for cameras to get a small chance to leave their lives behind for a second, she is enraptured in the possibilities. The dad wants no part of entering the contest, as he doesn’t want visitors around. Ironically, he takes in a German foster child, Martin. His motives are not altruistic. They’re for having another working body to help with the business and for the additional money the government will pay for providing a home for the boy. Although winning “The Wonders” comes with a cash prize, Gelsomina’s father shuns the idea of receiving it by way of entertainment in the same way my dad would be furious whenever he’d hear the Jeopardy theme. Gelsomina can continue to dream about life’s little approved entertainments or take the big swing against her father’s wishes.
The trope of the forbidden pursuit is a familiar one. Whether it a star-cross’d love or something the character is right to be forewarned about. What makes “The Wonders” unique is its miniscule scale. Gelsomina’s yearning is so meager, because her world is so small. The hashtag #firstworldproblems serves as a reminder of people like Gelsomina who have so little. A little brat is upset at not being given an XBOX One for Christmas; Gelsomina just wants one chance to have fun. As an audience member, it’s a small thing for which to be asked. This makes it all the more frustrating for it not to be granted.
The film reminds me of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “classic,” “The Bicycle Thief.” Their country of origin makes them easy bedfellows, as well as the accolades each film has received. “The Wonders” won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. I already labeled De Sica’s film, though the quotation marks were meant to be facetious, but it’s not an opinion shared by many. Where the true similarities between the films lie is their frustration for the viewer. In “The Bicycle Thief,” the unemployed and desperate protagonist is given a job which requires the use of a bicycle. His bike is stolen almost immediately. He spends the rest of the film in pursuit of his bike for fear of losing this job his family depends on. It’s a film with a fatal question at the heart of it: why not just borrow a bike? This type of frustration runs the course of “The Wonders,” though it’s not a plot hole gnawing at you. It’s that the film’s ambitions may be even more limited than Gelsomina’s. A character having a limited scope is understandable, but Gelsomina is not behind the camera.
That job belongs to writer-director Alice Rohrwacher. Her vision for the film is as tiny as Gelsomina’s is for herself. There are certainly small pleasures to be found in the film. “Delightful” is a word that would describe it in parts. However, the film compares favorably to an unsalted cracker. If you’re starving, you’re happy you received anything to eat, but would it kill you to add a little flavor? Though not particularly a children’s movie, perhaps younger viewers would get more pleasure out of “The Wonders.” Again, they’re the big dreamers.