My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)
Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).
Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.
In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.
You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf
John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.
Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:
Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:
A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.
The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.
The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.
The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.
The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.
For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?
I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.
Welcome attracted over 1 million admissions in France in 2009 and was also successful in Italy for writer-director Philippe Lioret. It received won awards at festivals and prizes at competitions around Europe. However, in the UK, where part of the story is set, interest was negligible with only a few thousand admissions. Perhaps this was because the small distributor Cinefile had difficulty getting bookings – but was this in turn because of a reluctance to deal with narratives like this? The ‘Welcome’ of the title is deeply ironic and refers to the (presumably British?) doormat in a block of flats/apartments in Calais where the common greeting extended towards migrants attempting to reach the UK by crossing the Channel is anything but ‘welcoming’.
The narrative concerns two couples. Marion (Audrey Dana) and Simon (Vincent Lindon) are a French couple living in Calais. She is a teacher and an activist helping to run a support centre for asylum seekers. He is an ex-swimming champion now working as an instructor at a local pool. Their marriage has broken up, partly because he doesn’t share his wife’s commitment to helping asylum seekers. The other couple are also separated. Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) is a young Iraqi Kurd (17-18) trapped in Calais while his girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi) is now living with her family in London where her father is a restaurant manager. Bilal makes one abortive (and traumatic) attempt to get to England using a people-smuggling gang and then seeks another way. He is a strong athlete who wants to become a professional footballer but now decides to attempt to swim the channel. Searching for a trainer to help him prepare he comes across Simon. Reluctant at first, Simon gradually takes to the boy and realises that by helping him he might have a chance of getting back with his wife. (Simon and Bilal communicate in English – the lingua franca of migrants in Europe.) This unlikely story is apparently based on something Lioret heard about in Calais and his meeting with a young man like Bilal when he spent time living with migrants and supporters. (See this interview with Philippe Lioret.)
Without these two love stories I wouldn’t have had a movie but a documentary about immigrants. I’ve seen many of these documentaries – and they have all been very good – but unfortunately I don’t think people are necessarily moved by them. If people are interested in my film, it’s because it speaks to them emotionally. (Philippe Lioret in the interview above.)
What Lioret says makes sense and I thought the film worked very well. I don’t want to spoil the storytelling by revealing the ending but I did find the central idea difficult. Swimming the Channel is challenging for the most experienced swimmers with full support and seemingly impossible to achieve ‘under cover’. Is this attempt meant to be ‘real’ or symbolic in terms of storytelling? While we are concerned that Bilal might undertake the journey, we are also made aware of the French law (L622-1) that makes it an offence to help illegal immigrants in France. Marion and her co-workers have to work carefully in relation to this law. Simon is more cavalier and risks imprisonment because of the way he acts.
Overall I think the film works in terms of the writing and performances, although I think it is sometimes difficult to have a well-known actor like Lindon alongside much less experienced young actors like Ayverdi. It works in terms of ‘trainer’ and ‘trainee’ but in other scenes it is difficult not to look at Lindon’s performance differently. (As I write this, Lindon’s performance in 2015’s The Measure of a Man which won the Cannes Acting Prize is being lauded on the film’s UK release.) I’m also now conscious of spotting actors like Thierry Godard, prominent in the TV cop show Engrenages shown on BBC4.
The subject matter of the film is now arguably even more compelling since the camp, ‘The Jungle’, in Calais is still there even though its profile in the UK news media is being eclipsed by the tragedy of migrant flows across the Mediterranean and by the furore about immigration deliberately inflamed by the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK European Referendum. If this kind of story was to appear in the UK it would most likely be in the form of a documentary, possibly for television. The equivalent of a production like Welcome has not, as far as I can remember, happened in the UK since a trio of films by ‘name’ directors in the 2000s. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (UK 2000), Michael Winterbottom’s In This World (UK 2002) and Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006). Any one of these would make a good choice for a comparative study with Welcome. It’s also worth noting that it took another French director, Rachid Bouchareb to make a film about the personal stories associated with an international tragedy in London River (France-Algeria 2009), which deals with the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London.
Philippe Lioret’s film perhaps focuses on the French couple too much for audiences whose first concern is the fate of the migrants. But the fate of both couples is important. Migrants, whether they are asylum seekers or simply ambitious people wanting the chance for what they perceive as a better life are not necessarily ‘victims’ or ‘heroes’ and those who attempt to help them do so for a range of reasons. The point of a humanist film is to represent all the characters in a story as who they are rather than as characters with specific narrative roles. Welcome is a film well worth seeing in the contemporary climate and it’s still available on DVD.
Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ ending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.
Brazil is the most populous and country in Latin America with the largest GDP but its film industry currently ranks second to Mexico in cinema admissions and behind Argentina in terms of prestige and international profile. Where Brazil does prevail, however, is in TV production as the centre for telenovela (a type of soap opera drama) production for a large domestic and international audience.
The Second Mother is co-produced by Globo Filmes, part of Grupo Globo, one of the world’s largest media groups and also home to TV Globo, the originator of the telenovela. Some commentators have suggested that The Second Mother is in some ways a cinematic equivalent of a telenovela. As the name implies a telenovela is a ‘long-form drama’, a novel in the form of a hundred TV episodes. Telenovelas cover a wide range of topics but some are certainly concerned with the after effects of colonialism – social class divisions and inequalities – and others focus on contemporary social issues which interest a mass audience.
The maid and nanny in post-colonial Latin America
There are several major themes in the ‘New Latin American Cinema’ of the last ten years. Latin America is now the most urbanised region on the planet with 80% of the population living in cities and surrounding urban areas. Given that for many years the image of Brazil on screen often included the rain forests or the Amazon, it is certainly worth considering just how many recent films have focused on urban life. They have focused on the problems of rapid urbanisation and how these have produced shanty towns/favelas alongside modernist architecture and gated communities. Inequalities have helped to create criminal gangs and kidnappings etc. Rapidly growing populations mean housing problems and pressure on services like education.
There have been several high profile Latin American films that have focused on wealthy (often very wealthy) families and the role of the maid and/or nanny). The Second Mother is not the film’s original title (which doesn’t easily translate from the Portuguese) but Val can be seen as either the ‘second woman’ who is a mother in the wealthy household or as the woman who acts as the nanny or ‘second mother’ of the teenager in the family, Fabinho. But the title might have another meaning as well, which we’ll discuss after the screening.
The maid/nanny figure is a ‘holdover’ from the European colonial period (even though this was 200 years ago). The European élites often appointed a young woman from the ‘native’ population as first a maid then a nanny and eventually as a housekeeper. (Something similar can be found in many ex-British colonial societies such as Hong Kong, Malaysia or India.) In all cases a specific three-sided relationship between mother, nanny and son/daughter develops. In the case of Val the maid/nanny/housekeeper and her own daughter Jéssica, Val respects the traditions associated with working for a rich family but Jessica is a ‘modern’ young woman who rejects class difference – thus creating the film’s narrative drive.
It is noticeable that when Jessica first arrives in São Paulo, the Southern hemisphere’s largest conurbation (of 20 million people), she first announces her plan to study architecture and then hears Val’s description of ‘concreting over’ the city she remembers from earlier times.
Anna Muylaert first conceived the idea for The Second Mother and outlined a script many years ago, but changed her approach after the election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazilian President in 2011, who has subsequently given support to female filmmakers. The new script, Muylaert says, “reflected the changes and debates that were happening around me. Instead of portraying the nanny’s daughter as hapless and meek – a faulty cliché – I gave her a forceful personality, made her noble and headstrong enough to stand up to the separatist social rules grounded in Brazil’s colonial past”. It is also clear that the film’s focus is very much on the women in both the wealthy family and in Val’s own family. Women have ‘agency’ in this film.
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. Her new film The Wonders won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2014 and like her earlier film has some autobiographical influences.
Alice Rohrwacher has an Italian mother and a German father who was a beekeeper. The family at the centre of the film comprises an Italian mother, Angelica (the director’s sister Alba Rohrwacher, a well-known Italian actor), 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). It isn’t clear if they are squatting on the land or renting it. 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
The film is difficult to categorise. There are strong elements of neo-realism and also moments of something vaguely spiritual or fantastical. It’s funny, dramatic and moving. In genre terms it’s a ‘coming of age’ narrative, but just as importantly a commentary on aspects of contemporary society – delivered with humour but also acuity.
The honey ‘business’ has all kinds of problems, but the ‘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 scheme (he’s German as well). The reality show is a brilliant satire of Italian TV in which Monica Bellucci is a kind of carnival queen looking for colourful locals who can represent the farming community in coastal Tuscany and evoke the ancient Etruscan culture. 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.
“. . . a film about the countryside, the somewhat peculiar love between a father and his daughters, missing male sons, animals and little people that live in the television. It’s a film in the viterbese dialect, but when the characters are angry, they respond sometimes in French and German. Le meraviglie is also a fable.” (Alice Rohrwacher in the Press Notes)
The film’s real strength is Rohrwacher’s commentary on being an outsider. This specific region of Italy, where Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria meet is a place where dialect is still important and mingles with the languages of migrants. 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.) 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 and fought the seasons alone. 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. 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. Not having a movement, a definition which can be ascribed from the outside, all that remains is one word: family.”
Rohrwacher talks about the post-1968 generation and conflicting ideas about what the changes post-1968 might mean – but it’s also worth thinking about the large number of migrants from Africa now entering Italy and Greece to access other EU states.