Some people’s problems would never occur to you. About midway through The Wonders, an autobiographical drama about a family of beekeepers in rural Italy, a violent storm hits, with winds strong enough to blow the lids off of the boxed hives upon which the clan’s livelihood depends. Unfortunately, this particular region of the country is not just barren but rockless, meaning there’s nothing handy to use as weights in an emergency. So dad Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and eldest daughter Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu) lie down side by side atop the hives, listening to the raindrops pelt the tarp under which they’re huddled together, as well as the faint buzzing below them. It’s a lovely, tender moment between two characters who’ve been having communication issues, made more indelible by its unusual nature. And while The Wonders idles in a relatively low gear throughout, it’s full of such compelling grace notes.
Gelsamina comes closest to serving as the film’s protagonist, as she’s integral to both of its story threads. The primary one involves the family’s effort to keep their business solvent—the Italian government has notified them that they need to upgrade their facilities or be shut down, and they don’t have the money. While wandering in the woods near their house one day, however, Gelsamina and her three younger sisters come across a beautiful woman dressed as a mermaid. This turns out to be TV personality Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), who’s shooting a promotion for a cheesy local show called Countryside Wonders. The show plans to award a sizable cash prize to the “most traditional family” they can locate, and Gelsomina tries to convince her father—who abhors anything even vaguely tacky or commercial—that this is their big chance. Mostly, though, she’s just a normal teenager excited by the idea of being on TV.
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Gelsomina gets her wish, and the climactic broadcast, in which the family (which is actually new to the area) struggles to appear sufficiently old-fashioned, is a lot of fun. Mostly, though, The Wonders just quietly observes this odd multicultural unit, which is closely based on that of writer-director Alice Rohrwacher. This is Rohrwacher’s second narrative feature, and she avoids the crass symbolism and stern moralism that detracted from her first, 2011’s overbearing Corpo Celeste. Instead, she’s made a charmingly naturalistic slice of life, in which the details of the beekeeping trade (which several of the actors learned) and the giddy joy of two little girls splashing through puddles register as strongly as anything that moves the ostensible story forward. Certain elements are admittedly underdeveloped: A subplot involving a German juvenile delinquent (the very German-sounding Luis Huilca Logroño, who significantly doesn’t speak), taken in by the family as a means of earning some extra income, goes nowhere in particular, and the mom, Angelica (played by the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher), never quite comes into focus. But if the film fails to deliver wonders, it does offer substantial pleasures.