alice rohrwacher discusses her coming of age film about a beekeeping teenager

Adulthood and fading tradition collide in the Cannes winning director's fantastic new film.

by Colin Crummy
17 July 2015, 1:40pm

Italian writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a splash with her 2012 debut Corpo Celeste, a naturalistic and visually accomplished tale of an Italian schoolgirl preparing for confirmation. Her follow up, The Wonders, sees 34-year-old Rohrwacher stay on home turf, in a coming of age story set in the Italian countryside. Gelsomina, played by newcomer Maria Alexandra Lungu, is a beekeeper and de facto head of a chaotic family which has retreated to rural Italy, perhaps in opposition to modern life and how it's treated them. The teenager works with her loving but equally chaotic father and the two are presented with two potential money making propositions: the first, when they are offered cash to house a young German delinquent by social services; the second, by taking their traditional (and not altogether up to health and safety standards) honey making enterprise on a tacky TV show, which plays on nostalgia for rural traditions. The Wonders, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year, follows Gelsomina's journey into womanhood in the midst of these dramas. It is also so authentically shot, you'll crave some of the sweet honey after watching. Below, Rohrwacher explains her thinking behind the film.

The family in The Wonders is a farming one but neither through tradition or as boho newcomers seeking 'the good life'. Why are they there?
I believe that any parents' main desire is to protect their children from the dangers of a world beyond their control, a world that's contaminated and miserable.

Was it important to make a girl-­‐Gelsomina--the family breadwinner?
It is a family with special rules. A girl can be the head of the family because she is the most responsible and rational, they all realise this and at the same time they make fun of the situation.

The father‐daughter relationship you describe in almost animalistic terms. You didn't want it to be over analysed in psychological terms - why so?
The film is a synthesis, not an analysis. I believe in the power of images and how they convey relationships, without the need to explain too much, making sure people experience them on a deeper level, like in a fairytale.

The film feels in part a lament for the dying of old ways. Do you think it's important to keep old traditions alive?
I think it's important to protect life and bio-diversity--traditions make up bio-diversity, therefore they need to be protected.

Does it matter who keeps them alive and what their reasons/intentions are?
Absolutely, because if they (the traditions) are only kept alive because of economics, then that's not something to do with tradition but exploitation of the past, and it is important to understand what one is actually doing.

I loved how you describe making the film as similar to how the family keep bees--outside rules and regulations to produce good stuff. Do you feel frustrated by rules generally?
Rules are needed in order to understand why they exist and when it's necessary to go against them, limits are necessary in order to be challenged to reach them.

Tradition is repackaged for television in your film. Why did you bring in this reality show aspect?
By now, television is part of the history of our country as much as the landscape is, it's the main force responsible for the overall cultural genocide, laziness and sadness, and therefore it's important to portray it as a character in this fairytale, almost like a mythological being.

You didn't use special effects for the bees and Gelsomina has a special, and potentially stinging, bee trick--did the actress learn this for the film?
As much as it's possible, I want to make films that happen in the moment, when they are being made, not films that are engineered in the lab, post-production. I believe that the difference is noticeable. Alexandra was very giving and courageous - I asked her to make this gesture and she did it, in a way that was confident yet simple, very much a reflection of her personality. 

Colin Crummy
alice rohrwacher
the wonders