This article was produced as part of the New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.
With the considerable and unprecedented success of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” from the past year, the genre seems to only cement itself further into the storytelling tradition which bodes the question: is there room for a Girlhood? Fortunately, the New York Film Festival’s main slate this year included two Italian films that might fill that bill: Asia Argento’s “Misunderstood” and Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders”. Both films burrow through the rabbit hole of adolescence and young adulthood, resulting in drastically different and exciting observations of the aches and charms of growing up through the much needed (and less recurring) female perspective.
Argento’s “Misunderstood” is the third feature for the notable actress-turned-director. Although Argento claims that the film is not autobiographical but rather the fictional product of an obsession to reify “the universal child,” the film assuredly bears her fingerprint: a frenetic tempo underscored by a chaotic punk rock soundtrack and brazen Crayola palette. Aria (Giulia Salerno), the youngest of three sisters, is often overlooked by her separated parents: Madre (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Padre (Gabriel Garko) who are more interested in the dramatics of their own lives. Much like children themselves, they’re quick to sway, their emotions largely determined by circumstance. As a result, Aria is rendered a nomad as she literally shuffles between houses with her trusty cat, Dac, finding respite only when convenient. Aria yearns for their attention, her parents, distant abstractions behind closed doors. With no firm hand for guidance, she begins to act out in more so amusingly precocious than dangerous ways: smoking cigarettes at school, stealing mail, and scrawling graffiti proclaiming her fondness for Dac. In an isolated and tender exchange, Aria asks her mother if she can breastfeed again, a revealing glimpse of Aria’s desire to retreat to a past world. Not unlike the unbridled energy of a child’s temper tantrum, “Misunderstood” is skittish, unpolished, and fleeting but encapsulates well what Argento describes is the perception of emotions which can be “overwhelming and […] unbearable.”
If “Misunderstood” is a tantrum, then “The Wonders” is a contemplation. Winner of the prestigious Grand Prix at Cannes, the film, also Rohrwacher’s third feature, borrows heavily from her own familial connection to beekeeping. Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) accepts her role as the eldest and her inherent responsibility for her three sisters. Living away from busy metropolitan distractions, she and her father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), keep their heads bowed as they toil in honey in which their livelihood depends. However, their kindred bond is tested as Gelsomina begins to reach towards a world that her father has worked so hard to shelter her from. She quickly becomes enamored with the host (Monica Bellucci) of a local competition show, who offers her a hair barrette, a shiny lure. Understandably, Wolfgang feels threatened when Gelsomina begins to outgrow her insular world, as he has to come to terms with the reality that in time, she will also outgrow him. The tension between obligation and yearning, the old world and the new, ultimately branch out from the story’s underlying conflict of growing up. The film examines the duality in such themes, focusing on the strained moment of resistance before one crosses the line that separates the two extremes. The scene where a bee crawls over Gelsomina’s face much to her sister’s amusement is illustrative to the film’s quiet and ruminative state. The film does not attempt to overturn or subvert, but instead feels content in its humility as it drifts along.
Needless to say, there is an obvious dearth of films that center on the female perspective. Though the aforementioned films have found a place within the festival circuit, they have not yet found the opportunity to foray into the mainstream. Many factors play into this hurdle but the fact that they deal with the female point of view or originate from female directors should not be amongst them. Despite sharing similar and universal themes, there is an inherent difference between the male and female Bildungsroman. After all, one’s experience is derivative of his or her environment and social norms, which are usually realized in regards to one’s gender. Though it should not matter what gender helms what kind of film (who is to say that a female cannot make a film from the male perspective and vice versa), there should be a more fervent call for films that explore female-centric viewpoints from an honest and authentic place.