With Lazzaro Felice lauded at Cannes in 2018, Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher has emerged as a significant global film artist. Her second feature-length film, Le Meraviglie, released in 2014, is a mixture of fiction, documentary, and myth-making that prefigures her breakout hit, and is well worth considering in its own right.
Le Meraviglie tells the story of a family of beekeepers in rural Tuscany, and features the director’s sister, Alba Rohrwacher, in the role of the mother of three daughters. As in the elaborate tobacco-farming scenes of Lazzaro Felice, Le Meraviglie goes into gritty detail about the work involved in bringing honey to market, and the difficult family dynamics arising around such a hardscrabble existence. Unlike the mother who is warm and soft-spoken, the father of this family is a rigid eccentric, who demands the honey-gathering and production be done according to his strict standards. He condemns his young daughters to a seemingly endless routine of work, work, work, and no play.
The film’s heroine, Gelsomina, is on the cusp of adulthood, and troubled by her diminished horizons. She moons over the markers of femininity that are usual for a teenage girl, and of which she feels deprived— pretty clothing and accessories, the glamour of a famous actress (played to the hilt by the star Monica Bellucci), and faraway destinations. Gelsomina eventually comes up with a plan for her whole family to escape their dreary circumstances—by winning an Italian ‘local products’ contest, held by the regional chamber of commerce, and thus earning acclaim and a pot of cash.
The surreal scene that ensues as we watch Gelsomina, dressed as an ancient priestess, play along with the televised game show that has been concocted to advertise the contest and its products, is unforgettable. In its unique mixture of beauty, cheesiness, irony, and sincerity, this long scene is a showstopper.
In its unpredictable rhythms, unique tone, and masterful combination of documentary and fine art filmmaking aesthetics, Le Meraviglie, like Lazzaro Felice, is mesmerizing work by a world-class filmmaker.