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For her Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning (and Palme d’Or-nominated) feature film “The Wonders,” filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher didn’t have to look too far to find a story worth telling.
Set on a honey bee farm in the Italian countryside, Rohrwacher’s film adeptly weaves together seemingly disparate storylines — the bee-keeping family at the heart of the film is devoted to their pastoral existence, though they also eschew tradition by readying a female member of the family to lead the farm forward, and then there’s a pesky reality show lingering on the edges, along with all sorts of tensions between different ways of life that continually threaten the peace — that speak directly to Rohrwacher’s own experience growing up in Italy with a beekeeper dad.
Yet, as Film Comment reminds us in their lovely interview with the filmmaker, the first thing that Rohrwacher announced at the film’s Cannes press conference was, “This is not an autobiographical film.” Still, the bones are there and Rohrwacher clearly shares a unique background with her own precisely drawn characters.
“The Wonders” pulls together its various characters — including first-time actress Maria Alexandra Lungu as pre-teen daughter Gelsomina and Alice’s own sister, Alba, starring as the clan’s mother — by way of a script that neatly vacillates between dreamy idyll and the encroachment of real life. Shaded with essential details that keep even the most fairy tale-like elements grounded in realism, “The Wonders” is both personal and original.
In a recent interview with The New York Time’s T Magazine, Rohrwacher (along with her sister and star, Alba), spoke to fellow filmmaker Sofia Coppola about the intersection between their own childhoods and the one put on the big screen for Alice’s latest critical darling.
“We grew up in the country, without much access to film. The fact that we didn’t have any real relationship to movies made us desire that world even more,” Alice said.
Still, no matter how limited the Rohrwacher girls’ access to movies was, they still sought them out for entertainment and emotion. Alice said, “The movies that meant a lot to me were ones I saw when I was like 16, 17 years old, but of course ‘E.T.’ was important to me as a kid. Bertolucci’s ‘1900’ was a big deal. Another big one in our house was ‘The Blue Lagoon.’ I think the most influential movies are the ones you see at formative times in your life.”
As for those honey bees? “We weren’t as involved in making honey as the kids in the movie are, but, like them, we were brought up by parents whose personal and professional lives were completely wrapped up in each other. There was no end to the workday — it was one big blur,” the filmmaker said.
At least they had those movies.
When it comes to the functions of the family unit itself, Alba told Coppola that her character is “closer to our shared idea of a mother than our actual mother, who is much more involved in city life than my character.”
But character might not have been the most important part of turning her childhood into a feature, because Rohrwacher eventually invested herself in something much harder to calibrate: Mood.
That atmosphere? Unique, but also not too far off from another life on an Italian honey bee farm not so very long ago.
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