By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 19, 2014 at 9:17AM
Recent years have seen the Cannes Film Festival take an increasing amount of heat for its paucity of female directors, and rightly so—the last couple of years saw either zero or one woman with a film in the Official Competition, with directors like Sofia Coppola and Claire Denis reduced to the sidebar sections. Festival head Thierry Fremaux has remained bullish, claiming that anything else would be tokenism, but he does seem to have paid some degree of attention: this year, female helmers in Competition have doubled, to a whopping two. The first (with Naomi Kawase's "Still The Water" to come in a few days) is "La Meraviglie," or "The Wonders," the latest from "Corpo Celeste" helmer Alice Rohrwacher. A gentle and textured coming-of-age story, it's undoubtedly one of the stronger competition films to date, and could well find favor with Jane Campion's jury, but we found it a little too neat and ... Sundance-y, for want of a better word, to love it unreservedly.
Rohrwacher's script follows a part-German, part-Italian family in the west of the latter country. Stern, stubborn but loving father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) makes his living off the land as people in the area have for generations, with the family business mostly revolving around honey, but a change in health and safety laws starts to threaten their future. He also longs for a son, living with his wife (Rohrwacher's sister Alba), sister-in-law (Sabine Timoteo) and four daughters, the oldest of which, Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), is already dreaming of escape, or at least something bigger. Something bigger soon arrives, as the children stumble across the filming of a TV competition show that judges local produce, and is hosted by the glamorous Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci). Almost simultaneously, in a bid to raise some extra cash, Wolfgang takes in Martin, a troubled, near-mute German boy (Luis Huilca Logrono) who's been threatened with juvenile detention if he doesn't fall into line.
There's a lot to take in, then, but Rohrwacher wrangles it into shape with two clear throughlines. On the one hand, it's a Bildungsroman centering on Gelsomina, who has to deal with responsibility beyond her years, a relationship with her father that's becoming tempestuous for the first time, and even the first pangs of longing, thanks to the arrival of Martin. On the other, it's an elegy for a way of life that's coming to an end. With the family struggling to get by, and holidayers and tourists moving in, it's clear that their simple existence can't continue for long, and it's no accident that the pagan-tinged finale is set in caves full of ancient Etruscan paintings.
So Rohrwacher has some potent stuff to work with, and if nothing else, the film cements the promise of "Corpo Celeste." The Super-16 photography by "Pina" DP Helen Louvart is excellent, lending a docu-drama verite both to the immaculately detailed farmwork scenes, and the more surreal and glitzy excursions into the TV world. The storytelling is always crisp and clear, and there's no doubt that Rohrwacher knows how to work with actors, as the whole cast are superb (though Alba Rohrwacher never has enough to do as the mother). Louwyck lends a tender note to the otherwise brutal and bull-headed patriarch, Timoteo is arrestingly strange as the yoga-practicing cuckoo in the nest, and Bellucci gets to fulfil her long-held destiny and basically play Nigella Lawson. Best of all are the younger actors. Lungu is remarkably accomplished when it comes to showing the simmering angst and frustrations that come with the dawning of adolescence, while Agnese Graziani, as her little sister, is a particular standout. It's not easy getting such lived-in and unmannered turns from young actors, and that they're so impressive is undoubtedly a testament to Rohrwacher's skills.
And yet the film didn't quite sit right as a whole. Though there's an admirable sense of messiness to the scenes of family life, the screenplay itself is rather neat: one has a fairly solid sense of how things are going to play out from the early stages, and for the most part that's how it goes, ticking off a checklist of rather familiar beats along the way. Finding something new in the coming-of-age genre is difficult, but underneath the admittedly unique setting, this is closer to a middling Sundance comedy/drama along the lines of "Little Miss Sunshine" than something more difficult and European.
It's particularly true of the ending, which tips into unearned sentimentality and ultimately makes you leave the theater feeling that the movie was slighter than you hoped. You don't have to make too many suppositions to draw a line between Gelsomina and the director (given their shared Italian/German heritage, for one), so it's clearly an admirably personal piece of work, but one that ultimately walks in the footsteps of too many others for us to really take it into our hearts. [B-]