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Side Street Films: The Wonders

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 by

Eden Cinemas’ innovative Side Street Films programme is aimed at showing that there is “more to cinema than Hollywood” – and we couldn’t agree more. Our resident cineaste Shaun Antnin takes a look at the fortnightly offerings from Eden’s artistically oriented programme and decides what they are worth.

The Wonders is a tale about the trials and tribulations of a family of bee farmers, told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Gelsomina, who lives with her parents, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), and three younger sisters in rural Tuscany. Their life is depicted as an almost constant quest to make ends meet; they even take in a young offender from a German reform programme in the hope that the state’s stipend will subsidise their existence.

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This event, along with Gelsomina entering the family’s honey into a competition promoting locally sourced produce, constitute what little could be considered to constitute a conventional plot. However, this is not a plot-driven film. Rather, its focus is on relationships and the daily struggle of flawed humanity: to get on with their lives (and along with each other). To actualise this, the director’s lens shows a clear sympathy towards Gelsomina, presenting her as the embodiment of both raw potential and idealistic youth, but burdened with responsibilities (both financial and emotional) far beyond her years.

In the family environ, she is the focus of the film. Contrastingly, her father’s personality is shown as aggressively contradictory and stubborn (to put it mildly), while, in turns, also humane and caring. However, whilst this flawed, fallible man has his faults, his love for his family knows no bounds, and whenever he is seen interacting with anyone outside the family circle his humanity and passion is ever more apparent. The audience is encouraged to empathise with him as he rails against the ills of modern society, namely: urbanisation, hunters, commercial farming, pesticides and the influx of tourists whose spending keeps the local economy afloat whilst simultaneously suffocating it.

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Despite its setting, very little screen time is given to the countryside. Instead it serves as a backdrop, performing a vital function in providing contextualisation, primarily in how its continuation is vital to both the way of life it supports and to humanity as a whole. However, such sentiments are expressed primarily through its protagonists’ conversation rather than via anything the camera focuses upon. So don’t expect any sweeping Tuscan panoramas.

Instead, the prodigious use of handycam delivers camerawork which is almost documentary-like, punctuated by longshots and the occasional stylised flourish, which results in the cinematography falling somewhere between the conventional and the artistic. The lighting, too, is in turns intense, washed out, or incredibly dark, while the images retain a slightly grainy effect while, conversely, still retaining an expert filmic standard.

Although the acting, by a cast of relative unknowns, is of a high standard, and naturalistic enough not to jar with the cinematography, this is not a conventional work by a long chalk. Do not go into this film expecting any orthodox fare. The sparse plot does not serve as a focal point, nor is the film’s primary function to entertain, but rather to draw attention to a quite alarming state of affairs, albeit in a rather roundabout and abstract manner.

The world’s population is growing rapidly, while the number of smallholders is diminishing. In the near future, hunger will be one of mankind’s greatest concerns, and most people seem distracted, unaware, or don’t care. Wolfgang is the films conscience, drawing the viewer’s attention to everything that is wrong in the world, while Gelsomina represents youth and the future.

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The aforementioned contest – which concludes the primary plot thread, but does not end the family’s story – is a manifestation of all that is wrong with the modern world, and everything that Wolfang despises: it is kitschy, gimmicky and superficial, but it also offers a solution to their most pressing woes via the prize money offered to the winning entrant. Its outcome, much like the film itself, has more to do with the messages the director wishes to get across to the audience than any consideration of closure, and once it is over the film stumbles towards its own abrupt conclusion.

As a complete work, this film suggests and implies far more than it tells, leaving the viewer to read into it as they wish. Consequently, as the credits rolled, my mind was absorbed in untangling the meaning of some of the work’s more abstract messages, rather than enjoying any sense of denouement or closure one expects to feel at the end of a conventional film. If the director’s primary intention was to inspire introspection he has succeeded in his aim. If you are up to the challenge, maybe you, too, can (cautiously) approach this film and make your own attempt at reading into it.

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