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Review: Off-center ‘The Wonders’ finds sweetness in unlikely places

Alexandra Lungu in a scene from "The Wonders."
(Oscilloscope Laboratories)

A German Italian family of beekeepers — back-to-the-land parents and their four young daughters — drift in and out of focus in the dreamy, free-floating drama “The Wonders.” What grounds them, and their story, are the workaday details of making honey in their hardscrabble corner of Tuscany, far from the touristy romance of hillside estates.

Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, whose sister Alba Rohrwacher plays the girls’ mother, emphasizes a powerful, often mysterious sense of place over plot. There are suggestions of a former communal life for the parents and the household’s third adult (Sabine Timoteo). The father, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), runs out into the night in his jockey shorts to rail against hunters, and when he encounters a lakeside commercial shoot for a TV contest, with an actress (Monica Bellucci) done up as a sea goddess, he protests against the crude marketing by proclaiming, “My daughters are free.”

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For all his strong opinions, Wolfgang isn’t joking when, in a crucial interaction with the outside world, he defers to eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) as the head of household. Not yet a full-fledged teen, she’s both pragmatic and starry-eyed, and a bee whisperer to boot.

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Gelsomina is the fulcrum in a story that frames a familiar conflict — the collision of modernity and tradition — in intriguingly off-center ways, alive with piercing detail. The lines are clear but tantalizingly porous, as when Bellucci’s “Countryside Wonders” hostess gives Gelsomina a sparkly hairclip, or when the show’s producers, leading locals to a nearby island, ride in a boat named Lucifero.

Letting questions remain unanswered and silences go unfilled, Rohrwacher offers lovingly crafted glimpses of an enterprise we all engage in, regardless of whether we’ve ever been near a beehive: extracting sweetness from the materials at hand.

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“The Wonders”

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MPAA rating: None. In Italian, French and German with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles.


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