Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher made a strong début with her 2011 film Corpo celeste (Heavenly Body) which showed in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, winning a prize. Although Artificial Eye released the film in the UK in 2012, it got little exposure and I missed it. I’ll certainly seek it out after seeing her new film The Wonders. I understand that both films have something of an autobiographical influence and the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, well-known on Italian screens, appears in The Wonders.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. These are all part of the ‘narrative material’ of The Wonders. I find it difficult to categorise this film. There are strong elements of neo-realism, sometimes developed in surprising ways, and also moments of if not ‘magic realism’, at least something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s also funny, dramatic and very moving. In genre terms I suppose it is a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly it is a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity. The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014, but I’ve also seen reviews that describe it as ‘slight’. I couldn’t disagree more.
The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), a German father (Belgian actor Sam Louwick) who keeps bees in the organic/’natural’/’bio’ manner, their four young daughters and Coco a family friend (also German, I think). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. Clearly they don’t have much money and the bulk of the work seems to be organised by Wolfgang, but actually carried out by the eldest daughter Gelsomina. I’m not sure how old she is meant to be – 12-13 perhaps? The ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the two ‘disruptions’ that drive the narrative are a reality TV show, ‘The Wonders’, and the arrival of a 14 year-old boy seemingly as cheap labour on some kind of rehabilitation/probation scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci in a long white wig is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who in this part of coastal Tuscany can represent the farming community and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. Wolfgang ignores the show but Gelsomina is entranced and secretly registers the family for the show. The boy says very little but entrances the girls with his ability to whistle.
“Le meraviglie is a film about the countryside, about the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, about missing male sons, about animals and little people that live in the television. It is a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they even respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
I think that the film can be enjoyed simply on the level of the coming of age/family story (which does have a slight ‘twist’ at the end) but its real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider – or an outsider community. She stresses that her setting is a specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet and where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. She points out that though many think of rural areas as somehow more ‘pure’ and monocultural, they are in this region likely to include the mixed family groups of which this family is representative. (Alexandra Lungu who plays Gelsomina comes from a Romanian family.) But it is more than just a story of migrations. Rohrwacher also points to the marginal position of Wolfgang and Angelica in terms of politics and lifestyles:
“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, tried hard, and fought the seasons alone. They are all ex-somethings, with different languages, distant pasts, but with common ideals. I have met many families like this in Italy, but also in France, in Greece. Small communities untethered to the rest, with autonomous rules and a parallel life to that which we read about in the newspaper. But it is not a simple life: you have to work hard and it is difficulty to survive without the comfort of belonging to a movement. You are not a true farmer because you are not from the land, but you can also not be defined as a city person because you have severed ties to the city. 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. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
I realised while watching the film that I’d seen another film about a struggling family living on the land. Will It Snow For Christmas? (France 1996, dir. Sandrine Veysset) is a much bleaker and more realist film but it would be interesting to compare them. I’m still thinking through my readings of The Wonders – there are further remarks from Alice Rohrwacher about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but I think it is also worth exploring what the film means in terms of the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy as the access point to Europe. I’ll definitely be coming back to this film which has been acquired for a UK release by Soda Pictures.
This was the first film I saw in Glasgow and a great way to start my festival viewing – with an intelligent and taut Italian crime film. Anime nere focuses on the ‘ndrangheta, the criminal families of Calabria in the deep south of Italy. The film begins on the waterfront in Amsterdam (which is not identified) where Luigi, one of three Carbone brothers is negotiating a major drugs deal with a Spanish group. Back on a mountain top near the Calabrian village of Africo, Luigi’s nephew Leo is fed up with his father Luciano who has opted out of crime to concentrate on the farm and his goats. Leo decides to head off on the long train journey north to Milan where he meets up with Luigi and the third brother, Rocco, the ‘accountant’ in the criminal business.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative turns out to be the hot-headed Leo’s piece of minor vandalism carried out in his home village. It soon becomes clear that the Carbone’s rivals have just been looking for an excuse and a full-blown turf war is about to break out.
But it doesn’t – or at least not in the way that might be expected. This is more gangster as art film than gangster as The Godfather. Francesco Munzi’s film, based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco is quite slow and it is deadly serious. Anyone who is a fan of the Italian TV crime series Inspector Montalbano will find this film both familiar but also disturbing. The connection is first via the actor who plays Rocco – Peppino Mazzotta – and who also plays Fazio, the Inspector’s ‘go to’ Lieutenant. But it’s also in the depiction of the desolate farms and abandoned villages of Sicily and Calabria. In the TV series it is played with some humour, but not here. There are several subtexts about the rural South and the sophisticated North and about the power of family ties and codes of honour – which of course are increasingly out of place in the global crime business.
The film doesn’t end as you might expect and throughout the violence is minimal with the worst bits off screen. But the tension is great throughout and you always expect something to happen. Vertigo are listed as UK distributors so I hope this gets into cinemas. Highly recommended if you are a fan of the European crime film – but give it a miss if you just like gunfights and sharp suits.
I only heard yesterday that this great Italian director had died. His passing was announced on January 12th, he was 92. We were fortunate in Leeds when the 19th International Film Festival featured a complete retrospective of his films. Some of us were fortunate to see one of his masterworks, Illustrious Corpses (Cadaveri Eccellenti, Italy / France 1976) twice. The first print to be screened was in immaculate condition but without subtitles. Credit to the Festival, later in that week they arranged a second screening of a print with subtitles, though not quite in the same mint condition. Like much of Rosi’s work the film has a labyrinthine complexity: following the first screening was a challenging act. But visually the film was stunning. The opening presents one set of the various corpses in the film: skeletal but robed they hung in an underground passage, full of foreboding.
Rosi was born in Naples in 1922. Many of his films addressed the economic, social and political problems of the ‘south’ in Italy. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he worked as an assistant with both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni. The first film that I saw directed by him was Salvatore Giuliani (1962), at, I think, at the Academy cinema in London. This immediately struck me as both a marvellous and radical film. In some ways a documentary, the film provides a labyrinth of facts, characters and events. All are presented in marvellous black and white cinematography. Excitingly the film also offered a political deconstruction of Sicily and Italy at the time.
After this I watched out for his films. There was Lucky Luciano (USA / France / Italy, 1974). A biopic of a Mafioso gangster, the film had a marvellous central performance by Gian Maria Volonté. Volonté was himself one of the outstanding actors in Italian cinema of the period and he appeared in five of Rosi’s films.
Then there was Christ Stooped at Eboli (France / Italy 1975), also starring Volonté. In this film an anti-fascist in Turin is exiled to a remote peasant region. The film, with sure slowness, followed the protagonist, Carlo Levi, as he grew into the culture and community that he found there.
I caught The Mattei Affair (Il Caso Mattei, Italy, 1972) late: it followed the form and style of Giuliani. The film again starred Volonté, this time as an oil magnate who died in mysterious circumstances. The film explored the political corruption involved in this story, whilst avoiding pat explanations or resolutions. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1972.
Then in 1984 there was a terrific adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen with a fiery central performance from Julia Migenes-Johnson: Placido Domingo could not quite match her tempestuous characterisation. But the film had great mise en scène, especially in the final bull-fighting spectacle.
The Leeds Festival screened all of his 17 films to date in 2005. One pleasure was catching the several of his films I had not been able to see before. The standout of these was Hands over the city (Le Mani Sulla Citta, Italy/ France, 1963). This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in the same year. The film treats the collapse of a block of flats in a poor area of Naples: it also explored the corruption involved in this tragedy. Whilst the cast was mainly non-professionals, the central and powerful performance was by Rod Steiger. The collapse of the block used an actual demolition, filmed with multiple cameras. It was extremely impressive.
Another film that I saw for the first time at the Festival was Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Cronaca di una Morte Annunciatel, Columbia, France, Italy, 1987), adapted from the famous novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I had [foolishly] once watched the film on television, where it was cropped to 16:9. Now I saw it in its full 2.35 ratio and I realised that it was far better film and adaptation that I had previously thought.
Rosi’s films carried on much of the style of the neo-realists. His major films always had a documentary feel, and the word ‘journalistic’ was often used in reviews. Where he stood out in the 1970s and beyond was that he continued the political emphasis that was found in the best neo-realist films. Rosi worked on the scripts of all his films, so there was a definite authorial input into the themes. He was also a fine director of actors and encouraged his colleagues in design, cinematography and editing to produce splendid visuals. It is sad to think we will not see any more of his angry, complex and stimulating films: but we might get another retrospective.
Google translates the Italian title of this film as ‘Our Boys’ – which is confusing because it appears to refer to the original novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. For this Italian adaptation writer-director Ivano de Matteo and his co-writer Valentina Ferlan have changed aspects of the novel’s narrative including two of the central characters, making them a boy and girl rather than two boys. The various changes (there are more) are intended to make the moral question at the heart of the narrative even more compelling.
The ‘dinner’ is a regular event in which a wealthy lawyer and his second wife entertain the lawyer’s brother, a paediatrician, and his gallery ‘explainer’ wife. It is always the same expensive restaurant and the relationship between the brothers is testy at best. The doctor is critical of his brother who he thinks has too much money and has married a ‘bimbo’. This latter is rather unfair and the film is suffused with a sense of a critique about the haute bourgouisie in Rome. The central part of the narrative refers to a dangerous and reprehensible action involving the lawyer’s daughter and the doctor’s son who are on their way home from a party. I won’t spoil what they did. The fallout is that the two sets of parents have to decide what to do and in what follows most audiences are going to be surprised by the actions that the parents take – which is unexpected, not just in terms of what they do but also in terms of who does what. The denouement takes place at the next dinner when the two couples are together again. The actions they take are also compared to an incident which takes place at the start of the film. This sees a case of road rage in which an off-duty policeman pulls a gun when he is threatened with a jack and shoots the assailant dead, also wounding the man’s son. The lawyer brother then defends the policeman and the doctor looks after the injured child.
You probably get the impression that this is a contrived narrative and that is precisely right according to the director who answered questions in the Q & A alongside Jacopo Olmo Antinori, the young actor playing the lawyer’s son (who also played a disaffected teenager in Bertolucci’s Me and You which I saw at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013). One member of the audience said that he was profoundly shocked by the ending of the film. I’m not so sure. I certainly noticed the ending but I’d got a little irritable by then because the interplay between the brothers did indeed seem contrived – loaded one way so that it could be flipped. Ivano de Matteo was an engaging aggressive character in the Q & A and he is clearly a talented director. The film won the prize for ‘Best European Feature’ awarded by the Europa Cinemas Network after its Venice festival screening which means it will get support for distribution in Europe. It has also been acquired for North America. A Dutch adaptation has already been released and a Cate Blanchett adaptation is also expected.
I thought the film was well made and the performances were good. It is an interesting moral dilemma but I did feel I was being manipulated. That may not be a bad thing if my liberal views are being challenged, but I didn’t enjoy the film so much because of the approach the director takes. I’m grateful to the ‘Den of Geek’ review of the film which points out that What Richard Did and We Need to Talk About Kevin cover much of the same ground much more cogently and more effectively.