The Wonders

20/04/2022

A Bewildering Transition

The mythological meets the realistic in Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders, but what happens when the mythological becomes the televisual, and the intimately realist a cinematic means to give dignity to the image that television is in danger of undermining? Rohrwacher’s film is about a family farm in the Etruscan region where their specialty is honey. When one of the kids hears about a TV show called Countryside Wonders, she wants the family to enter, with the chance of winning a place on TV, where their products can be advertised on the show. Near the end of the film, we see they have made the shortlist and must go, dressed in Etruscan garb, to an island cave as the winner will be announced. It is a humiliating and dictatorial experience, with the father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) initially tongue-tied and then cut off mid-sentence when he says “it’s honey…It’s natural. We don’t add anything to it. Some things you can’t buy…the world is about to end.” Inarticulate and pessimistic, this is the last thing TV execs want when trying to turn the working class into heroes, especially when they are trying to link them to the myths of the ancient past all the better to capitalise on history. 

This contains a few ironies. Wolfgang says, earlier in the film, that if they don’t update, if they don’t adapt to modern farm production, they will be shut down. At the same time, everyone is interested in the region as an ancient site. He hopes that this preoccupation will leave the authorities off their backs for a while: that the obsession with ancient culture means the farm needn't worry about their own antediluvian status. "Thank God lately they are all busy with these shitty Etruscans. They all wonder where the Etruscans come from," and this interest at least creates a tourist industry that means the area can make money by more than farming. Wolfgang offers this in German; he may now own a farm in the Etruscan region but he is himself from elsewhere. No doubt part of the humility he feels when dressed in Etruscan garb rests in the phoniness of doing so in the hope that he can better sell his products. But this is where myth counters the natural and where TV offers the commodified. When Melissa Anderson notes in a good article on the film in ArtForum that there is no TV to be seen in the family home she is wrong but it is an assumption easy to make. We do see it early in the film when Wolfgang is lying asleep on the sitting room couch, and it is on but ignored, and he then asks eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) to switch it off, perhaps aware it potentially has a hold over her that his off-grid, low-impact living has been for years trying to counter. Rochrwacher was brought up in an environment similar in some way to the one she shows here (her Italian mother was a teacher; her German father a beekeeper) and didn’t grow up with a television, though it is a subject that clearly fascinates her. “I would say it’s very sweet television. It causes pain, but that pain is not due to what television has become historically, rather due to the media itself. The TV in fact is a box; it looks to place people in a setting. But this family doesn’t allow itself to be boxed up. The people on the programme don’t have bad intentions; it’s the media that is bad, in the etymological sense, the media is the thing that imprisons.” (CineEuropa) In another interview she says “the thing about TV is its hypnotic power. I’m hypnotized by it. The same way that fairy tales have hypnotic power, because these magic elements hypnotize you. But in reality, these same elements can be quite dangerous and very negative.” (Film Comment

Though the film is hard to locate historically (Rohrwacher says any time after 1968), it seems part of a general interest in recent Italian cinema that muses over the Berlusconi era, where the televisual becomes the ontological: where people have absorbed its principles and preoccupations to the detriment of the reality of their own lives. There is Nanni Moretti’s Caiman, Matteo Garrone’s Reality and of course Paul Sorrentino’s Loro. While Loro and The Caiman more directly attended to a version of Berlusconi the man, The Wonders and Reality are interested more in what the sort of televisual world of the Berlusconi-esque means to people who are far away from the man’s world of wealth and power. In Reality, a smalltown fishmonger starts to confuse reality with fantasy when he gets the chance to appear on reality TV. But, Marco Grosoli says in Film Comment, “everyone in the film is caught in the vise-like grip of a faulty social order—an irreversible merger of micro-economy, family, religion, and media, producing an environment in which one must become a performer in order to stand out, as if reality television’s God’s-eye gaze were permanently watching you,” Grosoli also insists “this isn’t a film about Berlusconi’s Italy. It’s a film about [Prime minister Mario] Monti’s Italy— a country crushed by the immense and futile task of both appeasing the God’s-eye view of unregulated capitalism and desperately searching for a theological-socioeconomic escape route.” True, Monti was Prime Minister when Reality was made, but Berlusconi hovers over much contemporary Italian film and that a media tycoon could go on to become Prime Minister four times indicates an influence far greater than someone who served only two years. It is that influence we see shaping a potentially and specifically televisual false consciousness: a Marxist notion meeting modern media and exacerbating the problem. Marx was concerned that people would confuse their own conditions with those imposed upon them by the classes above, and he and other Marxists could see the proletariat could “unwittingly misperceive their real position in society and systematically misunderstand their genuine interests within the social relations of production under capitalism." Thus "false consciousness denotes people’s inability to recognize inequality, oppression, and exploitation in a capitalist society because of the prevalence within it of views that naturalize and legitimize the existence of social classes.” (Britannica) One might then wonder how much worse it would be with the addition of modern media. If we have the well-known adage “if voting made a difference, they’d abolish it”, then maybe one reason why it might not seem to make much of a difference in the 21st century is that the media does a very good job of developing people’s false consciousness. If people have the right to vote, but media moguls own great swathes of the media, then the freedom of one gets cancelled out by the manipulation of the other. 

This is part of the story but surely not the whole story, and certainly far from the whole story that Rohrwacher chooses to tell, yet she hasn’t been shy in commenting on Berlusconi, saying that the “genocide of the Berlusconi culture was devastating Italy.” (Variety) What we have, though, in The Wonders, is a small-scale businessman and his family resisting the contemporaneous whilst in the process failing into the Luddite. “If we don’t update they’ll shut down”, Wolfgang says but when we look at the farm, the state of the building they live in, and the manual mishaps that seem inevitable when people are doing work by hand that might better be done by machine, we could wonder whether Wolfgang’s resistance is just useless belligerence. Throughout the film he seems a man who lets his ego get in the way of practicalities; that his way of life matters more than the reality of living it, and that he thinks too little of the other family members who must go along with a decision that was probably made some years earlier and that he insists must be lived on those terms and not the present ones. Is the government creating needless problems or are they insisting on a necessary upgrade? Wolfgang looks like the sort of man who wouldn’t have any tolerance for bureaucracies and is inclined to hope a problem will go away rather than face it. When Coco (who isn’t part of the direct family but also speaks German), says that they have till the 21st of November, he says “no…they just want to scare us.” One senses that what matters is a resistance to the conventional world more than a determination to make a success of their present existence, which seems ad hoc, messy and contingent, as though they could move on at any moment — even if it appears like they may have been there for years. Determined to resist the false consciousness of conventional culture, Wolfgang and his family have created a life based on getting by rather than getting on, but perhaps what worked a decade earlier is no longer likely to work now. 

Rohrwacher interestingly proposes a general backdrop to Wolfgang, Coco (Sabine Timoteo), and the kids’ mother (played by the director’s sister Alba). “They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks and fought the seasons alone.” She reckons, “they are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, France, and Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to those we read about in newspapers. It isn’t a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficult to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement.” She sees that they fall between the cracks because “you are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also no longer be defined as a city person. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life.” (The Case for Global Film) When we look at the house, the pickup, the interior walls, here are people making the best of a situation rather than thriving. Since Rohrwacher insists that though the setting is specific, the date is vague, we cannot say for sure how much is outdated; how much a consequence of the period they are living in. If set in the seventies or eighties, the general (but not complete) absence of mobile phones makes sense; if set later than the nineties it indicates a lack of money or a determined choice. Though the film stays chiefly on the family and the farm, there are moments showing the film is set in a more contemporary world than the one the main characters occupy. It might be the house, one of the daughters, Gelsomina visits, and the home has newer household appliances and TV, or just afterwards, when Rohrwacher offers a panning shot of boys passing on their mopeds. The mopeds look modern enough and the housing could easily pass for places people would be living in at the time the film was made. Obviously, some things are more time-specific than others, which is why there are key markers filmmakers use when determined to locate their film in a certain moment while setting it in the relatively recent past: mini-skirts and beehive hair-dos; Morris Minors or wood-panelled estate cars. Near the end of the film, a social worker says to Wolfgang: “you’re unable to adapt to the world. You don’t know what’s going on out there.” The family has taken in a troubled boy, Martin (Luis Huilca) to help with the farm and also to get a bit of money from the state for looking after him, but the boy has gone missing. She has more than a point but adjusting to the world is a many-faceted thing. Should it include using pesticides on one’s land, should it mean selling up and out to tourists? Earlier, talking to another local farmer, Wolfgang says it is important that the farmers unite, adding: “first they make the tourists come and buy everything. They take control…and then they just send you away.” What passes for modernisation is just a new form of exploitation and Wolfgang is right to assume that replacing farms with tourist homes isn’t very sustainable. But he isn’t just pessimistic: he is apocalyptic. What is everybody to do, he wonders, when money becomes useless? He hasn’t just retreated from civilisation; he is waiting its collapse. 

Verbally, Wolfgang is the film’s central character, but perceptually the film’s focal point is Gelsomina. At one moment, when the social worker asks who is the head of the family, Wolfgang says we all are, while Coco interrupts and insists it is Gelsomina. Gelsomina is only twelve but she seems to be running things more than her parents, so while an absurd claim, it isn’t a lie, and from the film’s perspective she is the character who is absorbing the world around her, as well as the liminal place between the alternative lifestyle her parents have chosen, and the burgeoning adolescence that shows a yearning for something more. It is Gelsomina who enters the TV competition which propels the plot into the future, while Wolfgang’s purpose is to keep the story in the present, if not in the past. But more importantly, she is literally the focal point: the one whose eyes allow us to see much of the story: she is character most inclined to be given point of view shots and whose solitary life is explored. It might come in the moment where early on we see her looking at the TV set they stumble across and she becomes fascinated by the star of the proceedings, Milly Catina (Monica Bellucci), or later when she looks out of the window and sees the woman arriving with Martin. We rarely see her alone (a moment when looking in the mirror as she looks at a bee sting; when lying in bed looking at a postcard on the wall), as if solitude is a luxury the family cannot afford with seven people living in the house, and where even going for a late-night poo becomes a generally observed spectacle. But the film nevertheless shows a young woman capable of keeping a space to herself that Rohrwacher captures in the close-ups she often gives Gelsomina. Wolfgang might seem like the dramatic centre of the film but Gelsomina is its touching periphery. Wolfgang may have some years earlier made the decision to live an alternative life away from civilisation, but it is Gelsomina who has been brought up in this environment and yearns for more. Near the end of the film, on the ferry back from the island, Milly calls her over, and Gelsomina sits across from her as Milly takes her wig off and gives Gelsomina a hairpin. It is a brief scene but one indicating a contrary yearning: that Milly would perhaps like a little less artificiality in her life; Gelsomina a bit more. 

When Wolfgang insists that soon enough the world won’t have any use for money, he also says that soon enough people won’t even be able to plant salad, “cause you don’t plant pizza.” As he speaks, Gelsomina tries to interrupt, to get him to stop yelling at the members of this other family. While he insists they need to unite, he is busy insulting them, saying to the farmer “you’re a fool.” He has more than a point it would seem but as he looks glaringly at the farmer and the bottle of herbicide the farmer has been using (and that has been poisoning the bees), we sense a man who is unhappy in his conviction, who may have built his conviction out of that unhappiness. Gelsomina appears more bewildered than unhappy, as though she has reached an age where while she is too young to run the family business that she nevertheless more or less controls, she is at an age when questions about who she is and where she is are becoming pertinent. In the shot of the boys on their mopeds, the film pans away from them to Gelsomina and her friend standing on the terrace of the friend’s home. The friend is dressed in red, green and blue-striped trousers and a denim top, both clearly fashionable, and is wearing large hoop earrings and has a watch on her wrist. Next to her stands Gelsomina in a pair of baggy, faded denims and a blouse that looks like it could have come from a thrift store or a hand-me-down from her mother or Coco. Clearly, in such a shot, Rohrwacher wouldn’t wish us to judge the impoverishment of Gelsomina’s clothing next to her friend’s fashionable attire. But equally, it would be false to assume that the friend has stupidly bought into capitalism and its need for the new. That would probably be Wolfgang’s position but that isn’t Rohrwacher’s. The director may insist when asked if she is a political filmmaker: “Of course. There’s a cinema of prose and a cinema of poetry and the cinema of poetry is always involved with politics. That’s because it works in questions, and to start to think with your head is a political process.” (Guardian) Yet the poetic must be evident. In this moment with the two girls standing there, we don’t judge Gelsomina’s attire, of course, but we surely shouldn’t judge the friend’s relative elegance either. What matters is the poetry coming out of the shot, the pathos we feel for Gelsomina standing there almost vulnerable in her dress sense next to her friend’s habillemental invulnerability. The film isn’t telling us what to think at this moment; it is capturing very well the gap between two friends when one has a father who wants to resist capitalist development, and the other parents who are willing to accept it. Shortly before this shot, the girls are on the couch in the friend's house watching Milly Catina’s show as Milly says “if you are a family business, providing typical products, you can take part in the selection, ‘The Land of Wonders.’” She says only seven will reach the final round and the winner will win both cash and a trip to the South Seas. The father says that the TV people came to the town hall and he found them a spot in the Necropolis. The mayor was very happy the father says, looking like he might have a bit of a problem with the mayor but not a problem with the TV people. He has a mobile phone in his hand but we might notice too that his wife has been working on a sewing machine in the background: a hobby, a way to mend a few items in the house or a bit of extra income we cannot say, but Rohrwacher’s achievement is to leave images the opportunity to breath: to contain within them an ambiguity of meaning that allows for a complexity of response. Clearly, the friend’s family hasn’t chosen the resistant direction of Gelsomina’s but that doesn’t mean they serve as a simple contrast to Wolfgang’s life choices.  

“I think what you need to search for in the film is the integrity of the image” Rohrwacher says. “It doesn’t try to seduce the spectator, but instead appear to him…. In a time when images have entered our lives like liquids, I wanted to make a film with solid images that confront the spectator.” (Little White Lies) One doesn’t make a film against Berlusconi but one ought to try and create images that are contrary to the Berulsconi-esque. To offer such a generalisation, to make a claim about the sort of images Berlusconi’s media empire has been creating for forty years, would be to make a very big claim indeed, but directors like Moretti and Sorrentino have been happy to offer versions of them in their work, images that contain and comment on the vulgar, the excessive and the explicit. They show a turbo-charged capitalism whose pace is often reflected in a form that demands no patience and insists on the prurient. It makes sense that like many a significant Italian film for the last fifty years, The Wonders was produced through Rai, the government-funded film channel, that in its post-WWII configuration was based on the sort of principles that were insisted upon for the BBC: “to inform, educate and entertain” (Publications.Parliament.UK) It made sense that when Berlusconi had a chance he wanted to privatise parts of Rai: in 2005 he proposed 20% could be sold to private interests. That was always going to be troublesome coming from a man who owned much of the media himself. “Largely as a result of Berlusconi's media ownership, in 1989 a parliamentary commission unanimously approved a document stating that ‘the current level of mass media concentration in Italy is now unparallelled in any other country with a market-based economy.’” (‘Berlusconi, Italian Television and Recent Italian Cinema’) In 2002, Berlusconi effectively had control over most of the Italian media. “Italy's state broadcaster tumbled into Silvio Berlusconi's control yesterday when the term of the board of directors expired, giving the prime minister an opportunity to seal his dominance of television…Mr Berlusconi owns Italy's largest private television network, Mediaset, and with the state-owned Rai he will directly or indirectly control about 90% of the country's television market.” (Guardian) Italian filmmakers would sometimes take Berlusconi’s money but then criticise the man himself. Berlusconi commented on the “contradictory position taken by Italian directors in the past ten years: while they ask for money to finance their projects they attack the person and the company who finances them.” (Berlusconi, Italian Television and Recent Italian Cinema’ ) But what were filmmakers supposed to do when in one form or another most of the media was controlled by one man? 

One needn’t go too far into the intricate debates around Berlusconi’s political and media career, but he is a man who has shaped Italian consciousness over the last few decades from a certain point of view. As Ed Vulliamy said back in 1994, Berlusconi captured a “tawdry, self-obsessed, materialistic but incompetent society at the end of a sudden economic boom, its icons the cell phone, Berlusconi's girls, fast cars, and colossal private wealth.” (Guardian) It would be this point of view that Wolfgang is countering, and that the TV show will be confirming. Rohrwacher’s achievement is to see both sides without falling into false equivalence. When we see Gelsomina and her friend next to each other who can deny that the friend is nicely turned out and that Gelsomina looks a little self-conscious and aware of her modest attire? The friend isn’t presented as a materialist monster and later in the film we see her coming over to Gelsomina when she is dressed in garb for the show that she is trying to promote. Gelsomina is sitting selling the family honey at their stall. She just wants to look pretty and asks Gelsomina if she has chosen the right colour. Perhaps Wolfgang would see a young woman lost to materialism and trying to drag Gelsomina into frivolity and fluff but Rohrwacher can see for this twelve-year-old girl, her friend isn’t a threat but an option — another way of living and perhaps for Gelsomina, at an age when she is becoming a teenager, an understandably tempting one. 

Thus if the film works against the Berlusconi-esque it isn’t in the criticism of its content but more in the resistance of its form. “Some people call me crazy, but I always shoot on film,” says Rohrwacher. “It is the most modern technology I have found. I grew up in a digital world that creates so many images, most of them very quickly. When I made my first feature Corpo Celeste, with Hélène, I thought working with film was wonderful.” (Cinematography World) Working with her regular Director of Photography, Helene Louvart, she uses 16mm which gives the film a grainer texture than 35mm and a look of verisimilitude that digital cinematography usually eschews. “16mm film has a particular and lovely colour, grain and texture, perfect for what we wanted to achieve,” (Cinematography World) Louvart says. Sorrentino with The Great BeautyLoro and others is a director who is caught in a critique that is contrary to his style, as if he wants to question wealth and luxury but is also beholden to utilising an aesthetic that not only shows the rich and decadent but also uses a form (whether digital or 35mm) that echoes the extravagance of the lives shown. In Rohrwacher’s work luxury is at best on the edge of the frame while dead centre are people trying to feel their way around their environment. It is partly the limited perspective she offers visually that counters both the easy criticisms she could have aimed at the TV show, and potential condescension towards her naive central character. By showing Gelsomina trying to make sense of her world, by showing her brought up in one environment but curious about a more glamorous milieu, Rohrwacher resolves the tension in the form. She stays close to Gelsomina because she is interested in wonderment more than judgement, in a tentative understanding of the world rather than an assertive claim over it. Rohrwacher may insist when asked about Wolfgang's fascination with the end of the world and why is he so obsessed with it: “It’s mine.” (Screen Anarchy) But it isn’t Gelsomina’s: she is near the beginning of her world and better perhaps to focus on a twelve-year-old understanding her reality than a father who assumes that his values are the only ones that count. This is evident when Wolfgang insists the other farmers unite, as he makes clear they should do so on his terms. He may be correct, especially when companies hand out pesticides at the same time local officials are counting more and more on tourism. 

But that would be for another film, and a director’s sensibility needn’t necessarily coincide with their politics. That Rohrwacher would be unlikely to make a pro-Berlusconi film wouldn’t quite be the point: often political positions change more readily than aesthetic sensibilities. If Sorrentino made another film about Berlusconi and it was entirely sympathetic we might not be too surprised, for no other reason than his aesthetic sensibility is much closer to Berlusconi’s than Rohrwacher’s happens to be. He gets luxury as Rohrwacher gets sensitivity, and his stylistic flourishes always suggest plenty money behind the camera — just as he usually presents plenty money in front of it. Sorrentino doesn’t do cinema povera. Rohrwacher does. Even in the director’s Happy as Lazzaro, where the film observed people working for an estate, the rich are presented by Rohrwacher obliquely and their wealth shown as exploitation of the worker rather than as the comfort of the bourgeoisie. It is as if the director’s camera cannot quite be on the side of money and this might be part of a broader question that insists her camera cannot quite be on the side of power. It must stay with the vulnerable, and if not quite the passive, then the elusively active. 

Much has been made of course in the last twenty years of what has been called The Tactile Eye (the title of Jennifer M. Barker’s), The Skin of the Film (in Laura U. Mark’s) as well as a phenomenological approach to cinema found in Vivian Sobchack’s work. Reviewing Barker’s book, Joerg Sternagel says, “the body of the spectator is understood as responsive and vision is assumed as being tactile: the filmic image touches the spectator who herself touches the filmic image with her own eyes.” (Film Criticism) This is a haptic visuality, as Marks would say, that makes cinema quite distinct from, literature, painting, and theatre, but though pertinent to all cinema, it seems especially vital to certain types of film, and perhaps never more so than over the last couple of decades. Even more, this tactility indicates a cinema feminine, to play on the term litterature feminine offered by various French writers in the seventies and eighties: Helene Cixous (who coined it), Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Kristeva wondered if prose were masculine and poetry feminine, mused over whether in Lacanian terms language was vital to the disciplined, societal, Symbolic Order and thus a poetic language could escape its strictures. As Calvin Bendit says, “…according to Kristeva's theory, poetry is essentially antiformal — in fact, so profoundly antiaesthetic that the proper words for describing it are not beauty, inspiration, form, instinctive rightness, inevitability, or delicacy (to leave aside unaesthetic terms such as perception and truth, which the theory also renders inappropriate).” Instead”, he notes, “it attracts terms drawn from politics and war: corruption, infiltration, disruption, shatterings, negation, supplantation, and murder. Poetry is the chora's guerrilla war against culture.” (‘Kristeva and Poetry as Shattered Signification’) 

Perhaps, or it can be just a different way of doing literature, and in this instance, cinema: of seeing the image not as a given vocabulary of establishing shots, medium shots and close ups, but where the emphasis rests on the close up as a partial view. Many examples come to mind and a large number directed by women: Vendredi soirMorvern CallarWendy and LucySomersaultHappeningThe Headless WomanAmerican Honey — numerous film where the filmmaker allows the mise-en-scene to be dictated by the movement of its heroine. As Catherine Wheatley says of Happening, director Audrey Diwan “has director of photography Laurent Tangy shoot in 1.37:1aspect ratio, cleaving [to her central character] as she searches furiously for a solution to her difficulties” (Sight and Sound). The same is generally the case in the other films we mentioned. This doesn’t make such a style necessarily feminine (Wheatley invokes both Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul and the Dardennes’ Rosetta), but it does seem more commonly practiced by female filmmakers, and the difference here between Rohrwacher and Sorrentino is pronounced. Sorrentino’s camera can go over rooftops and through corridors, laterally track and zoom in as it constantly finds options for the visual image. There is the occasional long shot in The Wonders (when we see Milly Cantana and the crew at an Etruscan site), and high-angle shots (when two of the younger sisters play in puddles) but these still seem consistent with the limitations of viewpoint. Both shots aren’t point of view, but they could be.  

It gives to Rohrwacher’s film a sense of bewilderment, as though her complicated reservations about capitalism must find nuanced aesthetic form. “Capitalism creates conflicting classes, and a sentiment of community within one class, whereas now, there isn’t a sense of community anymore. There’s only a diffused fear and an impossibility to believe in innocence.” (Little White Lies) This demands staying close to her character and creating films that keep the frame tight so that the world beyond it seems a little inexplicable and mysterious. It is a hesitant approach that reflects her reservations about the current socio-economic situation without reducing the work to diatribe. If the film had been more sympathetic to Wolfgang, viewed things from his irritation and frustration with the world, it would have offered a useful jeremiad and might even have produced a specific style (closer perhaps to Spike Lee). But instead, it is a twelve-year-old girl who is growing up in an environment that moves in one direction and a world that is generally moving in another. Why wouldn’t she wish for some of the glamour of Milly, or even a little of it that her friend has; and yet why shouldn’t her father try and protect the family from a world of pizzas and herbicides? What we may find in Wolfgang is someone with the right views and the wrong sensibility, offering belligerence as he seeks a better world, while also showing that he might not be the man to provide it. He claims that nobody is the head of this particular household but there he is telling Gelsomina to get up so that he can sit down, relying on his daughter to do much of the work, or yelling at Coco when asking who invited the man who was inspecting their honey to see if it was good enough to qualify for the competition. 

One way of understanding a film’s form is to comprehend a film’s perspective: to see where it is coming from. Film doesn’t usually offer the equivalent of first-person narration but it is an art that can nevertheless offer degrees of omniscience. It can crosscut between various events (The Godfather’s christening scene and murders), offer multi-character exploration (Short Cuts), or logistical complexity (Z). But sometimes a restricted narration will allow a sensitivity to ally itself to the sensibility. The logistical seems antithetical to the tactile, and Rohrwacher often thus holds to Gelsomina’s point of view even if we cannot know for sure if she is witnessing the situation in front of us or when information could be conveyed in an establishing shot but is offered instead as incrementally revealing. We can think in the latter instance of the scene where the father brings to the farm a promised camel. In a single shot, the film shows us Gelsomina exiting the building as she calls her father’s name, before looking to her left while the camera follows her movements. She is observing something but we don’t know what until she walks towards what turns out to be the camel. We aren’t offered clear point of view shot (there is no shot/counter shot), but we do feel that we are watching what she is watching, and the camera follows her waiting to see what it can reveal based on following Gelsomina’s move towards the camel. As Rohrwacher says speaking of how she worked with Louvart: “our bodies are also present along with the actor’s bodies. So the camera movements become a responsibility to represent that we are here with them.” (Cineaste)

To understand where the film is coming from is thus to comprehend the formal choices it makes, and here Rohrwacher insists on wondering not just what it means when the younger generation is caught in an older generation’s ideals, but how to film it, how much does she need to stay close to the bewilderment of youth over the assertiveness of the idealism of their elders? In the vaguely, similarly-themed Captain Fantastic, the father (Viggo Mortensen) is clearly our central character and the film chiefly focuses on the ethics of taking your children out of mainstream society. It is a sensitive but not a sensitised account of the dilemma. By viewing events chiefly through Gelsomina, Rohrwacher gives to the predicament a nuance a more general approach would have struggled to provide. Offered as synopsis, the film can seem didactic. The winner of the competition turns out to be the neighbouring farmer who has been using pesticides, and who says, when asked what he would do were he to win, that he would more or less promote tourism in the district. He is a single man who says single women don’t come to such remote regions, and there he will be setting up agritourism to attract them to the area. But that isn’t quite how the film shows his victory. He appears an affable chap and when he wins, the film doesn’t register great disappointment that Wolfgang, Coco and Gelsimona have lost, but that they have allowed themselves to be part of a circus. They are all dressed up like extras in a Hollywood epic on Rome, there to capture the authenticity of the Etruscan region while of course registering the opposite. Yet, again, such a description isn’t quite fair to the tone of the scenes, which shows discombobulation over judgement, exacerbated when Martin goes missing and the film allows its attention to drift away from the importance of the contest. 

The apparent dissolution of the story’s thrust might appear like a dereliction of narrative duty but if Rohrwacher is interested in showing how the mythological, when accompanied by the televisual, needs to be countered by a relatively realist aesthetic, then what matters are the details and how they are perceived over the story and how it is told. Winning or losing the contest isn’t what matters but that the family feels obliged to compete, and how Gelsomina might feel about that before and after the competition, does matter. The film ends on a series of shots of the farmhouse, apparently empty as we may assume the family has moved away or been moved off the land. We are now no longer with Gelsomina but where is she we might wonder, as the film ends with a famous pop song, from an Rai teen show of the nineties, ’T’appertengo’. The empty scene and the popular song offer a contrast between the reflective and the immediate, between a world that is passing and a teenage urge for energy and change. Rohrwacher suggests that both have validity.  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Wonders

A Bewildering Transition

The mythological meets the realistic in Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, but what happens when the mythological becomes the televisual, and the intimately realist a cinematic means to give dignity to the image that television is in danger of undermining? Rohrwacher's film is about a family farm in the Etruscan region where their specialty is honey. When one of the kids hears about a TV show called Countryside Wonders, she wants the family to enter, with the chance of winning a place on TV, where their products can be advertised on the show. Near the end of the film, we see they have made the shortlist and must go, dressed in Etruscan garb, to an island cave as the winner will be announced. It is a humiliating and dictatorial experience, with the father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) initially tongue-tied and then cut off mid-sentence when he says "it's honey...It's natural. We don't add anything to it. Some things you can't buy...the world is about to end." Inarticulate and pessimistic, this is the last thing TV execs want when trying to turn the working class into heroes, especially when they are trying to link them to the myths of the ancient past all the better to capitalise on history.

This contains a few ironies. Wolfgang says, earlier in the film, that if they don't update, if they don't adapt to modern farm production, they will be shut down. At the same time, everyone is interested in the region as an ancient site. He hopes that this preoccupation will leave the authorities off their backs for a while: that the obsession with ancient culture means the farm needn't worry about their own antediluvian status. Thank God lately they are all busy with these shitty Etruscans. They all wonder where the Etruscans come from, and this interest at least creates a tourist industry that means the area can make money by more than farming. Wolfgang offers this in German; he may now own a farm in the Etruscan region but he is himself from elsewhere. No doubt part of the humility he feels when dressed in Etruscan garb rests in the phoniness of doing so in the hope that he can better sell his products. But this is where myth counters the natural and where TV offers the commodified. When Melissa Anderson notes in a good article on the film in ArtForum that there is no TV to be seen in the family home she is wrong but it is an assumption easy to make. We do see it early in the film when Wolfgang is lying asleep on the sitting room couch, and it is on but ignored, and he then asks eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) to switch it off, perhaps aware it potentially has a hold over her that his off-grid, low-impact living has been for years trying to counter. Rochrwacher was brought up in an environment similar in some way to the one she shows here (her Italian mother was a teacher; her German father a beekeeper) and didn't grow up with a television, though it is a subject that clearly fascinates her. "I would say it's very sweet television. It causes pain, but that pain is not due to what television has become historically, rather due to the media itself. The TV in fact is a box; it looks to place people in a setting. But this family doesn't allow itself to be boxed up. The people on the programme don't have bad intentions; it's the media that is bad, in the etymological sense, the media is the thing that imprisons." (CineEuropa) In another interview she says "the thing about TV is its hypnotic power. I'm hypnotized by it. The same way that fairy tales have hypnotic power, because these magic elements hypnotize you. But in reality, these same elements can be quite dangerous and very negative." (Film Comment)

Though the film is hard to locate historically (Rohrwacher says any time after 1968), it seems part of a general interest in recent Italian cinema that muses over the Berlusconi era, where the televisual becomes the ontological: where people have absorbed its principles and preoccupations to the detriment of the reality of their own lives. There is Nanni Moretti's Caiman, Matteo Garrone's Reality and of course Paul Sorrentino's Loro. While Loro and The Caiman more directly attended to a version of Berlusconi the man, The Wonders and Reality are interested more in what the sort of televisual world of the Berlusconi-esque means to people who are far away from the man's world of wealth and power. In Reality, a smalltown fishmonger starts to confuse reality with fantasy when he gets the chance to appear on reality TV. But, Marco Grosoli says in Film Comment, "everyone in the film is caught in the vise-like grip of a faulty social orderan irreversible merger of micro-economy, family, religion, and media, producing an environment in which one must become a performer in order to stand out, as if reality television's God's-eye gaze were permanently watching you," Grosoli also insists "this isn't a film about Berlusconi's Italy. It's a film about [Prime minister Mario] Monti's Italy a country crushed by the immense and futile task of both appeasing the God's-eye view of unregulated capitalism and desperately searching for a theological-socioeconomic escape route." True, Monti was Prime Minister when Reality was made, but Berlusconi hovers over much contemporary Italian film and that a media tycoon could go on to become Prime Minister four times indicates an influence far greater than someone who served only two years. It is that influence we see shaping a potentially and specifically televisual false consciousness: a Marxist notion meeting modern media and exacerbating the problem. Marx was concerned that people would confuse their own conditions with those imposed upon them by the classes above, and he and other Marxists could see the proletariat could "unwittingly misperceive their real position in society and systematically misunderstand their genuine interests within the social relations of production under capitalism. Thus false consciousness denotes people's inability to recognize inequality, oppression, and exploitation in a capitalist society because of the prevalence within it of views that naturalize and legitimize the existence of social classes." (Britannica) One might then wonder how much worse it would be with the addition of modern media. If we have the well-known adage "if voting made a difference, they'd abolish it", then maybe one reason why it might not seem to make much of a difference in the 21st century is that the media does a very good job of developing people's false consciousness. If people have the right to vote, but media moguls own great swathes of the media, then the freedom of one gets cancelled out by the manipulation of the other.

This is part of the story but surely not the whole story, and certainly far from the whole story that Rohrwacher chooses to tell, yet she hasn't been shy in commenting on Berlusconi, saying that the "genocide of the Berlusconi culture was devastating Italy." (Variety) What we have, though, in The Wonders, is a small-scale businessman and his family resisting the contemporaneous whilst in the process failing into the Luddite. "If we don't update they'll shut down", Wolfgang says but when we look at the farm, the state of the building they live in, and the manual mishaps that seem inevitable when people are doing work by hand that might better be done by machine, we could wonder whether Wolfgang's resistance is just useless belligerence. Throughout the film he seems a man who lets his ego get in the way of practicalities; that his way of life matters more than the reality of living it, and that he thinks too little of the other family members who must go along with a decision that was probably made some years earlier and that he insists must be lived on those terms and not the present ones. Is the government creating needless problems or are they insisting on a necessary upgrade? Wolfgang looks like the sort of man who wouldn't have any tolerance for bureaucracies and is inclined to hope a problem will go away rather than face it. When Coco (who isn't part of the direct family but also speaks German), says that they have till the 21st of November, he says "no...they just want to scare us." One senses that what matters is a resistance to the conventional world more than a determination to make a success of their present existence, which seems ad hoc, messy and contingent, as though they could move on at any moment even if it appears like they may have been there for years. Determined to resist the false consciousness of conventional culture, Wolfgang and his family have created a life based on getting by rather than getting on, but perhaps what worked a decade earlier is no longer likely to work now.

Rohrwacher interestingly proposes a general backdrop to Wolfgang, Coco (Sabine Timoteo), and the kids' mother (played by the director's sister Alba). "They are people that arrived in the country as a political choice because in the cities there were no more jobs and years of demonstrations had been stifled by violence and disillusionment. So they read books, learned to make a vegetable garden with handbooks and fought the seasons alone." She reckons, "they are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, France, and Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to those we read about in newspapers. It isn't a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficult to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement." She sees that they fall between the cracks because "you are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also no longer be defined as a city person. You are not hippies because you break your back from sun-up to sundown, but you are also not agricultural entrepreneurs because you reject the use of more efficient agricultural technology in the name of a healthier life." (The Case for Global Film) When we look at the house, the pickup, the interior walls, here are people making the best of a situation rather than thriving. Since Rohrwacher insists that though the setting is specific, the date is vague, we cannot say for sure how much is outdated; how much a consequence of the period they are living in. If set in the seventies or eighties, the general (but not complete) absence of mobile phones makes sense; if set later than the nineties it indicates a lack of money or a determined choice. Though the film stays chiefly on the family and the farm, there are moments showing the film is set in a more contemporary world than the one the main characters occupy. It might be the house, one of the daughters, Gelsomina visits, and the home has newer household appliances and TV, or just afterwards, when Rohrwacher offers a panning shot of boys passing on their mopeds. The mopeds look modern enough and the housing could easily pass for places people would be living in at the time the film was made. Obviously, some things are more time-specific than others, which is why there are key markers filmmakers use when determined to locate their film in a certain moment while setting it in the relatively recent past: mini-skirts and beehive hair-dos; Morris Minors or wood-panelled estate cars. Near the end of the film, a social worker says to Wolfgang: "you're unable to adapt to the world. You don't know what's going on out there." The family has taken in a troubled boy, Martin (Luis Huilca) to help with the farm and also to get a bit of money from the state for looking after him, but the boy has gone missing. She has more than a point but adjusting to the world is a many-faceted thing. Should it include using pesticides on one's land, should it mean selling up and out to tourists? Earlier, talking to another local farmer, Wolfgang says it is important that the farmers unite, adding: "first they make the tourists come and buy everything. They take control...and then they just send you away." What passes for modernisation is just a new form of exploitation and Wolfgang is right to assume that replacing farms with tourist homes isn't very sustainable. But he isn't just pessimistic: he is apocalyptic. What is everybody to do, he wonders, when money becomes useless? He hasn't just retreated from civilisation; he is waiting its collapse.

Verbally, Wolfgang is the film's central character, but perceptually the film's focal point is Gelsomina. At one moment, when the social worker asks who is the head of the family, Wolfgang says we all are, while Coco interrupts and insists it is Gelsomina. Gelsomina is only twelve but she seems to be running things more than her parents, so while an absurd claim, it isn't a lie, and from the film's perspective she is the character who is absorbing the world around her, as well as the liminal place between the alternative lifestyle her parents have chosen, and the burgeoning adolescence that shows a yearning for something more. It is Gelsomina who enters the TV competition which propels the plot into the future, while Wolfgang's purpose is to keep the story in the present, if not in the past. But more importantly, she is literally the focal point: the one whose eyes allow us to see much of the story: she is character most inclined to be given point of view shots and whose solitary life is explored. It might come in the moment where early on we see her looking at the TV set they stumble across and she becomes fascinated by the star of the proceedings, Milly Catina (Monica Bellucci), or later when she looks out of the window and sees the woman arriving with Martin. We rarely see her alone (a moment when looking in the mirror as she looks at a bee sting; when lying in bed looking at a postcard on the wall), as if solitude is a luxury the family cannot afford with seven people living in the house, and where even going for a late-night poo becomes a generally observed spectacle. But the film nevertheless shows a young woman capable of keeping a space to herself that Rohrwacher captures in the close-ups she often gives Gelsomina. Wolfgang might seem like the dramatic centre of the film but Gelsomina is its touching periphery. Wolfgang may have some years earlier made the decision to live an alternative life away from civilisation, but it is Gelsomina who has been brought up in this environment and yearns for more. Near the end of the film, on the ferry back from the island, Milly calls her over, and Gelsomina sits across from her as Milly takes her wig off and gives Gelsomina a hairpin. It is a brief scene but one indicating a contrary yearning: that Milly would perhaps like a little less artificiality in her life; Gelsomina a bit more.

When Wolfgang insists that soon enough the world won't have any use for money, he also says that soon enough people won't even be able to plant salad, "cause you don't plant pizza." As he speaks, Gelsomina tries to interrupt, to get him to stop yelling at the members of this other family. While he insists they need to unite, he is busy insulting them, saying to the farmer "you're a fool." He has more than a point it would seem but as he looks glaringly at the farmer and the bottle of herbicide the farmer has been using (and that has been poisoning the bees), we sense a man who is unhappy in his conviction, who may have built his conviction out of that unhappiness. Gelsomina appears more bewildered than unhappy, as though she has reached an age where while she is too young to run the family business that she nevertheless more or less controls, she is at an age when questions about who she is and where she is are becoming pertinent. In the shot of the boys on their mopeds, the film pans away from them to Gelsomina and her friend standing on the terrace of the friend's home. The friend is dressed in red, green and blue-striped trousers and a denim top, both clearly fashionable, and is wearing large hoop earrings and has a watch on her wrist. Next to her stands Gelsomina in a pair of baggy, faded denims and a blouse that looks like it could have come from a thrift store or a hand-me-down from her mother or Coco. Clearly, in such a shot, Rohrwacher wouldn't wish us to judge the impoverishment of Gelsomina's clothing next to her friend's fashionable attire. But equally, it would be false to assume that the friend has stupidly bought into capitalism and its need for the new. That would probably be Wolfgang's position but that isn't Rohrwacher's. The director may insist when asked if she is a political filmmaker: "Of course. There's a cinema of prose and a cinema of poetry and the cinema of poetry is always involved with politics. That's because it works in questions, and to start to think with your head is a political process." (Guardian) Yet the poetic must be evident. In this moment with the two girls standing there, we don't judge Gelsomina's attire, of course, but we surely shouldn't judge the friend's relative elegance either. What matters is the poetry coming out of the shot, the pathos we feel for Gelsomina standing there almost vulnerable in her dress sense next to her friend's habillemental invulnerability. The film isn't telling us what to think at this moment; it is capturing very well the gap between two friends when one has a father who wants to resist capitalist development, and the other parents who are willing to accept it. Shortly before this shot, the girls are on the couch in the friend's house watching Milly Catina's show as Milly says "if you are a family business, providing typical products, you can take part in the selection, 'The Land of Wonders.'" She says only seven will reach the final round and the winner will win both cash and a trip to the South Seas. The father says that the TV people came to the town hall and he found them a spot in the Necropolis. The mayor was very happy the father says, looking like he might have a bit of a problem with the mayor but not a problem with the TV people. He has a mobile phone in his hand but we might notice too that his wife has been working on a sewing machine in the background: a hobby, a way to mend a few items in the house or a bit of extra income we cannot say, but Rohrwacher's achievement is to leave images the opportunity to breath: to contain within them an ambiguity of meaning that allows for a complexity of response. Clearly, the friend's family hasn't chosen the resistant direction of Gelsomina's but that doesn't mean they serve as a simple contrast to Wolfgang's life choices.

"I think what you need to search for in the film is the integrity of the image" Rohrwacher says. "It doesn't try to seduce the spectator, but instead appear to him.... In a time when images have entered our lives like liquids, I wanted to make a film with solid images that confront the spectator." (Little White Lies) One doesn't make a film against Berlusconi but one ought to try and create images that are contrary to the Berulsconi-esque. To offer such a generalisation, to make a claim about the sort of images Berlusconi's media empire has been creating for forty years, would be to make a very big claim indeed, but directors like Moretti and Sorrentino have been happy to offer versions of them in their work, images that contain and comment on the vulgar, the excessive and the explicit. They show a turbo-charged capitalism whose pace is often reflected in a form that demands no patience and insists on the prurient. It makes sense that like many a significant Italian film for the last fifty years, The Wonders was produced through Rai, the government-funded film channel, that in its post-WWII configuration was based on the sort of principles that were insisted upon for the BBC: "to inform, educate and entertain" (Publications.Parliament.UK) It made sense that when Berlusconi had a chance he wanted to privatise parts of Rai: in 2005 he proposed 20% could be sold to private interests. That was always going to be troublesome coming from a man who owned much of the media himself. "Largely as a result of Berlusconi's media ownership, in 1989 a parliamentary commission unanimously approved a document stating that 'the current level of mass media concentration in Italy is now unparallelled in any other country with a market-based economy.'" ('Berlusconi, Italian Television and Recent Italian Cinema') In 2002, Berlusconi effectively had control over most of the Italian media. "Italy's state broadcaster tumbled into Silvio Berlusconi's control yesterday when the term of the board of directors expired, giving the prime minister an opportunity to seal his dominance of television...Mr Berlusconi owns Italy's largest private television network, Mediaset, and with the state-owned Rai he will directly or indirectly control about 90% of the country's television market." (Guardian) Italian filmmakers would sometimes take Berlusconi's money but then criticise the man himself. Berlusconi commented on the "contradictory position taken by Italian directors in the past ten years: while they ask for money to finance their projects they attack the person and the company who finances them." (Berlusconi, Italian Television and Recent Italian Cinema' ) But what were filmmakers supposed to do when in one form or another most of the media was controlled by one man?

One needn't go too far into the intricate debates around Berlusconi's political and media career, but he is a man who has shaped Italian consciousness over the last few decades from a certain point of view. As Ed Vulliamy said back in 1994, Berlusconi captured a "tawdry, self-obsessed, materialistic but incompetent society at the end of a sudden economic boom, its icons the cell phone, Berlusconi's girls, fast cars, and colossal private wealth." (Guardian) It would be this point of view that Wolfgang is countering, and that the TV show will be confirming. Rohrwacher's achievement is to see both sides without falling into false equivalence. When we see Gelsomina and her friend next to each other who can deny that the friend is nicely turned out and that Gelsomina looks a little self-conscious and aware of her modest attire? The friend isn't presented as a materialist monster and later in the film we see her coming over to Gelsomina when she is dressed in garb for the show that she is trying to promote. Gelsomina is sitting selling the family honey at their stall. She just wants to look pretty and asks Gelsomina if she has chosen the right colour. Perhaps Wolfgang would see a young woman lost to materialism and trying to drag Gelsomina into frivolity and fluff but Rohrwacher can see for this twelve-year-old girl, her friend isn't a threat but an option another way of living and perhaps for Gelsomina, at an age when she is becoming a teenager, an understandably tempting one.

Thus if the film works against the Berlusconi-esque it isn't in the criticism of its content but more in the resistance of its form. "Some people call me crazy, but I always shoot on film," says Rohrwacher. "It is the most modern technology I have found. I grew up in a digital world that creates so many images, most of them very quickly. When I made my first feature Corpo Celeste, with Hlne, I thought working with film was wonderful." (Cinematography World) Working with her regular Director of Photography, Helene Louvart, she uses 16mm which gives the film a grainer texture than 35mm and a look of verisimilitude that digital cinematography usually eschews. "16mm film has a particular and lovely colour, grain and texture, perfect for what we wanted to achieve," (Cinematography World) Louvart says. Sorrentino with The Great Beauty, Loro and others is a director who is caught in a critique that is contrary to his style, as if he wants to question wealth and luxury but is also beholden to utilising an aesthetic that not only shows the rich and decadent but also uses a form (whether digital or 35mm) that echoes the extravagance of the lives shown. In Rohrwacher's work luxury is at best on the edge of the frame while dead centre are people trying to feel their way around their environment. It is partly the limited perspective she offers visually that counters both the easy criticisms she could have aimed at the TV show, and potential condescension towards her naive central character. By showing Gelsomina trying to make sense of her world, by showing her brought up in one environment but curious about a more glamorous milieu, Rohrwacher resolves the tension in the form. She stays close to Gelsomina because she is interested in wonderment more than judgement, in a tentative understanding of the world rather than an assertive claim over it. Rohrwacher may insist when asked about Wolfgang's fascination with the end of the world and why is he so obsessed with it: "It's mine." (Screen Anarchy) But it isn't Gelsomina's: she is near the beginning of her world and better perhaps to focus on a twelve-year-old understanding her reality than a father who assumes that his values are the only ones that count. This is evident when Wolfgang insists the other farmers unite, as he makes clear they should do so on his terms. He may be correct, especially when companies hand out pesticides at the same time local officials are counting more and more on tourism.

But that would be for another film, and a director's sensibility needn't necessarily coincide with their politics. That Rohrwacher would be unlikely to make a pro-Berlusconi film wouldn't quite be the point: often political positions change more readily than aesthetic sensibilities. If Sorrentino made another film about Berlusconi and it was entirely sympathetic we might not be too surprised, for no other reason than his aesthetic sensibility is much closer to Berlusconi's than Rohrwacher's happens to be. He gets luxury as Rohrwacher gets sensitivity, and his stylistic flourishes always suggest plenty money behind the camera just as he usually presents plenty money in front of it. Sorrentino doesn't do cinema povera. Rohrwacher does. Even in the director's Happy as Lazzaro, where the film observed people working for an estate, the rich are presented by Rohrwacher obliquely and their wealth shown as exploitation of the worker rather than as the comfort of the bourgeoisie. It is as if the director's camera cannot quite be on the side of money and this might be part of a broader question that insists her camera cannot quite be on the side of power. It must stay with the vulnerable, and if not quite the passive, then the elusively active.

Much has been made of course in the last twenty years of what has been called The Tactile Eye (the title of Jennifer M. Barker's), The Skin of the Film (in Laura U. Mark's) as well as a phenomenological approach to cinema found in Vivian Sobchack's work. Reviewing Barker's book, Joerg Sternagel says, "the body of the spectator is understood as responsive and vision is assumed as being tactile: the filmic image touches the spectator who herself touches the filmic image with her own eyes." (Film Criticism) This is a haptic visuality, as Marks would say, that makes cinema quite distinct from, literature, painting, and theatre, but though pertinent to all cinema, it seems especially vital to certain types of film, and perhaps never more so than over the last couple of decades. Even more, this tactility indicates a cinema feminine, to play on the term litterature feminine offered by various French writers in the seventies and eighties: Helene Cixous (who coined it), Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Kristeva wondered if prose were masculine and poetry feminine, mused over whether in Lacanian terms language was vital to the disciplined, societal, Symbolic Order and thus a poetic language could escape its strictures. As Calvin Bendit says, "...according to Kristeva's theory, poetry is essentially antiformal in fact, so profoundly antiaesthetic that the proper words for describing it are not beauty, inspiration, form, instinctive rightness, inevitability, or delicacy (to leave aside unaesthetic terms such as perception and truth, which the theory also renders inappropriate)." Instead", he notes, "it attracts terms drawn from politics and war: corruption, infiltration, disruption, shatterings, negation, supplantation, and murder. Poetry is the chora's guerrilla war against culture." ('Kristeva and Poetry as Shattered Signification')

Perhaps, or it can be just a different way of doing literature, and in this instance, cinema: of seeing the image not as a given vocabulary of establishing shots, medium shots and close ups, but where the emphasis rests on the close up as a partial view. Many examples come to mind and a large number directed by women: Vendredi soir, Morvern Callar, Wendy and Lucy, Somersault, Happening, The Headless Woman, American Honey numerous film where the filmmaker allows the mise-en-scene to be dictated by the movement of its heroine. As Catherine Wheatley says of Happening, director Audrey Diwan "has director of photography Laurent Tangy shoot in 1.37:1aspect ratio, cleaving [to her central character] as she searches furiously for a solution to her difficulties" (Sight and Sound). The same is generally the case in the other films we mentioned. This doesn't make such a style necessarily feminine (Wheatley invokes both Laszlo Nemes's Son of Saul and the Dardennes' Rosetta), but it does seem more commonly practiced by female filmmakers, and the difference here between Rohrwacher and Sorrentino is pronounced. Sorrentino's camera can go over rooftops and through corridors, laterally track and zoom in as it constantly finds options for the visual image. There is the occasional long shot in The Wonders (when we see Milly Cantana and the crew at an Etruscan site), and high-angle shots (when two of the younger sisters play in puddles) but these still seem consistent with the limitations of viewpoint. Both shots aren't point of view, but they could be.

It gives to Rohrwacher's film a sense of bewilderment, as though her complicated reservations about capitalism must find nuanced aesthetic form. "Capitalism creates conflicting classes, and a sentiment of community within one class, whereas now, there isn't a sense of community anymore. There's only a diffused fear and an impossibility to believe in innocence." (Little White Lies) This demands staying close to her character and creating films that keep the frame tight so that the world beyond it seems a little inexplicable and mysterious. It is a hesitant approach that reflects her reservations about the current socio-economic situation without reducing the work to diatribe. If the film had been more sympathetic to Wolfgang, viewed things from his irritation and frustration with the world, it would have offered a useful jeremiad and might even have produced a specific style (closer perhaps to Spike Lee). But instead, it is a twelve-year-old girl who is growing up in an environment that moves in one direction and a world that is generally moving in another. Why wouldn't she wish for some of the glamour of Milly, or even a little of it that her friend has; and yet why shouldn't her father try and protect the family from a world of pizzas and herbicides? What we may find in Wolfgang is someone with the right views and the wrong sensibility, offering belligerence as he seeks a better world, while also showing that he might not be the man to provide it. He claims that nobody is the head of this particular household but there he is telling Gelsomina to get up so that he can sit down, relying on his daughter to do much of the work, or yelling at Coco when asking who invited the man who was inspecting their honey to see if it was good enough to qualify for the competition.

One way of understanding a film's form is to comprehend a film's perspective: to see where it is coming from. Film doesn't usually offer the equivalent of first-person narration but it is an art that can nevertheless offer degrees of omniscience. It can crosscut between various events (The Godfather's christening scene and murders), offer multi-character exploration (Short Cuts), or logistical complexity (Z). But sometimes a restricted narration will allow a sensitivity to ally itself to the sensibility. The logistical seems antithetical to the tactile, and Rohrwacher often thus holds to Gelsomina's point of view even if we cannot know for sure if she is witnessing the situation in front of us or when information could be conveyed in an establishing shot but is offered instead as incrementally revealing. We can think in the latter instance of the scene where the father brings to the farm a promised camel. In a single shot, the film shows us Gelsomina exiting the building as she calls her father's name, before looking to her left while the camera follows her movements. She is observing something but we don't know what until she walks towards what turns out to be the camel. We aren't offered clear point of view shot (there is no shot/counter shot), but we do feel that we are watching what she is watching, and the camera follows her waiting to see what it can reveal based on following Gelsomina's move towards the camel. As Rohrwacher says speaking of how she worked with Louvart: "our bodies are also present along with the actor's bodies. So the camera movements become a responsibility to represent that we are here with them." (Cineaste)

To understand where the film is coming from is thus to comprehend the formal choices it makes, and here Rohrwacher insists on wondering not just what it means when the younger generation is caught in an older generation's ideals, but how to film it, how much does she need to stay close to the bewilderment of youth over the assertiveness of the idealism of their elders? In the vaguely, similarly-themed Captain Fantastic, the father (Viggo Mortensen) is clearly our central character and the film chiefly focuses on the ethics of taking your children out of mainstream society. It is a sensitive but not a sensitised account of the dilemma. By viewing events chiefly through Gelsomina, Rohrwacher gives to the predicament a nuance a more general approach would have struggled to provide. Offered as synopsis, the film can seem didactic. The winner of the competition turns out to be the neighbouring farmer who has been using pesticides, and who says, when asked what he would do were he to win, that he would more or less promote tourism in the district. He is a single man who says single women don't come to such remote regions, and there he will be setting up agritourism to attract them to the area. But that isn't quite how the film shows his victory. He appears an affable chap and when he wins, the film doesn't register great disappointment that Wolfgang, Coco and Gelsimona have lost, but that they have allowed themselves to be part of a circus. They are all dressed up like extras in a Hollywood epic on Rome, there to capture the authenticity of the Etruscan region while of course registering the opposite. Yet, again, such a description isn't quite fair to the tone of the scenes, which shows discombobulation over judgement, exacerbated when Martin goes missing and the film allows its attention to drift away from the importance of the contest.

The apparent dissolution of the story's thrust might appear like a dereliction of narrative duty but if Rohrwacher is interested in showing how the mythological, when accompanied by the televisual, needs to be countered by a relatively realist aesthetic, then what matters are the details and how they are perceived over the story and how it is told. Winning or losing the contest isn't what matters but that the family feels obliged to compete, and how Gelsomina might feel about that before and after the competition, does matter. The film ends on a series of shots of the farmhouse, apparently empty as we may assume the family has moved away or been moved off the land. We are now no longer with Gelsomina but where is she we might wonder, as the film ends with a famous pop song, from an Rai teen show of the nineties, 'T'appertengo'. The empty scene and the popular song offer a contrast between the reflective and the immediate, between a world that is passing and a teenage urge for energy and change. Rohrwacher suggests that both have validity.


© Tony McKibbin