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Countdown to Cannes: Is Alice Rohrwacher’s ‘The Wonders’ Already a Frontrunner for the Palme D’Or?

Countdown to Cannes: Is Alice Rohrwacher's 'The Wonders' Already a Frontrunner for the Palme D'Or?

Our Countdown to Cannes column takes a look at various movies and filmmakers at the upcoming festival in the south of France worthy of anticipation.

No film festival award is the subject of greater speculation than the Palme D’Or, which the Cannes Film Festival bestows on the one movie its jury considers the best of the bunch each year. Of course, when dealing with a group of film professionals as delicately selected as the films themselves, the prospects of guessing any outcome amounts to little more than an intellectual exercise. Behind closed doors, jury members can be fickle, and arguments between members can lead to all kinds of unexpected results. It’s especially tough to take a stab at potential Palme D’Or contenders before the festival has even started, but what the hell: At this juncture, one particular entry seems especially well-positioned to win the prize for several reasons.

Alice Rohrwacher isn’t a globally-recognized master of cinema like other names in Cannes’ main competition this year, such as Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Marie”), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Two Days, One Night”) or Jean-Luc Godard (“Goodbye to Language”). But the 33-year-old Italian director isn’t a total newcomer, either. The sister of noted Italian actress Alba, Rohrwacher first made an impression on film festival audiences with her first feature “Corpo Celeste” (“Heavenly Body”), which premiered at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight festival in 2010 before playing to similar acclaim around the world, including a slot at the New York Film Festival.

Rohrwacher’s perceptive debut involved a young woman receiving confirmation and coping with the darker elements of the Catholic Church as she’s increasingly disconnected from the world around her. Her followup, “The Wonders,” also promises the tender story of a young woman struggling against her alienating environment.

Here, the plot involves the experiences of 12-year-old Gelsomina (newcomer Maria Alexandra Lungu), who lives in the remote Tuscan countryside with her younger sisters under the stern control of their father, who battles to keep their lifestyle a secret from the rest of the world. While grooming Gelsomina to take over the family, the girl’s father fights to maintain their rural existence against mounting pressures from the outside world, including new European farming laws that threaten the future of their honey lab. With Gelsomina harboring a talent for beekeeping, the future of her entire world comes under attack — and the prospects of a TV show competition (hosted by an angelic Monica Bellucci) from the neighboring town holds particular appeal. Meanwhile, a rebellious young German man who works on the farm adds an additional complication to her experience.

At this juncture, it’s hard to say if “The Wonders” will match its intriguing coming-of-age ingredients with a thoroughly satisfying narrative. But Rohrwacher’s previous work shows her capacity for exploring the struggles of youth and provincial lives with unrequited beauty — and in this case, the story has an especially personal dynamic: The events unfold in the countryside where Rohrwacher grew up, and her father worked as beekeeper. The movie’s trailer suggests a delicate portrait of an insular existence giving way to the challenges and excitement of the modern world: “The Spirit of the Beehive” by way of Francois Truffaut.

In the wake of last year’s Oscar win for Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” Italian cinema is well-positioned to explore the decline of old world world attitudes in somber, poetic ways associated with the country’s  culture. Unlike Sorrentino’s movie, however — which went home empty-handed after its Cannes premiere — “The Wonders” suggests an approach to its national issues with delicacy and warmth, factors more likely to win over a jury equally enticed by the idea of passing over veteran filmmakers in competition to recognize a fresher name.

Of course, one other ingredient gives “The Wonders” a major boost early on: Along with Cannes mainstay Naomi Kawase, Rohrwacher is one of two women directors in this year’s competition. Cannes has rarely done a good job of working more female voices into its lineup — or sought out pithy excuses about the program reflecting the sorry state of the industry — but so far, discounting last year’s prize for “Blue is the Warmest Color” that was technically shared by its female stars, only one woman has won the Palme D’Or in the 67-year history of the festival: New Zealand mainstay Jane Campion took home the prize for “The Piano” in 1993 — and this year, she’ll head up the jury for the main competition, which also includes Sofia Coppola and Iranian actress Leila Hatami (“A Separation”).

While it’s both premature and somewhat reductive to assume that any jury would favor a young woman director over other candidates, it can’t be discounted, either — particularly since “The Wonders” actually looks pretty good. Last year’s competition included the work of just one woman filmmaker, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s ill-received “A Castle In Italy,” which went home empty-handed. Certainly no jury with so much scrutiny being placed on its choices will easily reward a weak entry for one solitary, politically-motivated reason (even if some jurors may feel that way, consensus is key), but it can’t hurt. 

Of course, there are a lot of competition titles that might put veterans ahead of the game: British stalwart Ken Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall,” which focuses on an Irish communist leader deported from his country in the early in 1930s, has been receiving solid buzz along with an added boost from the 77-year-old director’s assertion that it will be his last film before his retirement. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” may finally push him into Palme territory after he won the runner-up prize for his mesmerizing procedural “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.” And among the U.S. filmmakers at the festival, Tommy Lee Jones’ western “The Homesman” could provide exactly the sort of generally satisfying old school genre experience that yields unanimous acclaim.

But at this premature stage of the game, it’s far more enticing to root for “The Wonders,” looking ahead to the possibility that Cannes heralds the new along with the old — assuming that it deserves the prize. For now, we can only hope.

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