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Childhood memories inform Alice Rohrwacher’s film ‘The Wonders’ — but it’s not autobiographical

The Italian drama “The Wonders,” the second feature by 34-year-old writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, is a unique coming-of-age story about a family of beekeepers barely eking a living in a decrepit farmhouse in the bleakly isolated Tuscan countryside.

The eldest daughter, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who works side by side with her father (Sam Louwyck) with the bees, is trying to navigate her way through adolescence. But there are distractions, including a troubled young German boy who comes to live with the family as a farmhand and the arrival of reality TV series crew featuring a glamorous host (Monica Bellucci).

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Before making her first feature film, the award-winning 2011 “Corpo Celeste,” Rohrwacher worked as a musician and as a documentary editor and director. “The Wonders,” which opens Friday, won the Grand Jury Prize in 2014 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Rohrwacher discussed “The Wonders” in an email interview.

The film is inspired by your childhood but is not autobiographical?

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The film is set in a world that I know well — the world of summers in the countryside, of family work, of families of different cultural origins. But nothing in the story is autobiographical. It is personal, but the intention was to take the thread of my memories and weave a tapestry that has nothing to do with my own story.

This film is also a father-daughter story. What was you and your sister’s relationship with your father?

It is a film and also a fairy tale. It is about the relationship between a father and his eldest daughter as if it were the relationship between a king and the crown princess of the crumbling kingdom he built. It is not about my relationship with my father. Films are a synthesis and not just a quick way of analyzing.

Your older sister Alba plays the mother in the movie. What was it like directing her?

I called on my sister because she is an exceptional actress and perfectly embodies the role of this young mother, who is simultaneously strong and fragile like a metal wire. We held many auditions with other actresses, and I saw she was the best for this character. Working with her is a surprising joy. She is an actress with whom I share an imagination and a work ethic. That was a great help .

Are there a lot of people in that region who escape the big cities to live life on their own terms — working hard but just barely getting by?

Yes, there are many nondescript families like the one in the film. Families made up of people who have tried to change the world with politics and, given the failure of the struggle for their ideals, have decided to build an independent kingdom away from society. I wanted to tell the story of one of these families, who, although difficult to define and categorize, have an incredible life force and are deserving of their place in the world.

I read that you worked with bees when you were younger. Is that why you decided to make them beekeepers?

I decided to use bees, of course, in part because they are animals that I know well, with which I have worked. But also because they have an incredible mystery to them, just like cinema. Although we can study and analyze films, they have their own autonomous force and mystery, like a hive, of processing the nectar of experience and turning it into honey. Bees are animals who want above all to be free, who you can only woo with sweetness, but which you can’t own. The basis of their work is freedom.

The young girl who plays Gelsomina had never acted before. You saw her in a catechism class. What qualities did you see she had for the role?

I saw in her a capacity for synthesis, being Gelsomina without wondering too much about the psychology behind Gelsomina. If an actor analyzes the character too much, she risks distancing herself from it. Alexandra, our Gelsomina, has this look that I’d define as honest and strong. The characters exist somewhere between fable and reality and, therefore, did not have to be too contemporary but, instead, a little out of time.

Did that house exist, or did you have to build it? Are there a lot of homes like that that pepper the countryside?

The house is, in fact, exactly how we see it in the last shot. It fascinated us when we were doing our reconnaissance because despite being abandoned, we felt the ghosts of its previous inhabitants. In this way, the film unraveled before us. We acted like this family, bringing in furniture that we found, as they would themselves do, trying to put ourselves in their shoes. We brought animals, did the gardening, and the house returned to life. There are many abandoned houses, of course, but this one is special, because it is inhabited by the stories of the people who once lived there.

What was your inspiration for the reality TV show invading the area? Are there shows like that in Italy?

Television has always been a place of mystery and magic to me. We were not allowed to watch television as kids because parents thought it was bad for us. As a result, it has become to me a kind of moon, something to imagine and contemplate from afar. Of course, I live in Italy and there’s no way I could escape the fact that television can also be a place of horror, that in the last 20 years it has replaced politics and has contributed to a disastrous cultural genocide in my country. I wasn’t interested in presenting it in a realistic way but to present it in a real way, reinstating my real perception of TV — a magical “handmade” world, cheap, a kind of extraterrestrial land that is very terrestrial.

Follow me on Twitter @mymackie


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