The Wonder-ful Rohrwacher Sisters on Show at MoMA with their Vivid Portrait of Contemporary Italian Cinema

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Alice Rohrwacher
A still from Le meravigile (The Wonders).2014. Italy. Directed by Alice Rohrwacher. Courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

The Wonders: Alice and Alba Rohrwacher – is the title of the retrospective running from the 4th to the 23rd of December at The Museum of Modern Art, giving the American audience the chance to discover or rediscover the enchanting aesthetic world of writer-director Alice Rohrwacher and actress Alba Rohrwacher. Two brilliant talents, two powerful female figures, one spectacular body of work that is weaving back together the tradition of the golden era of Italian cinema with a modern sensibility, inquisitive and nurturing at the same time. On the occasion of MoMA’s homage to the sisters, I publish here Part 1 of a case-study on Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), one of my favorite movies by Alice Rohrwacher, starring her sister Alba. My analysis explores the complex beauty of the symbolistic construction of the narration through the model of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, which lay underneath the magical neo-realism of the cinematography. 

By Tommaso Cartia

The retrospective was brought to MoMA by Istituto Luce Cinecittà, and curated by Josh Siegel of MoMA’s Film Department and Camilla Cormanni and Paola Ruggiero of Istituto Luce-Cinecittà. It showcases both Alice and Alba’s collaboration on movies like Happy as Lazzaro and The Wonders; and their personal efforts. Among them some movies that I consider the undeniable proof of the striking aliveness of Italian Cinema: Corpo Celeste (Heavenly Body) by Alice Rohrwacher; Maestro Marco Bellocchio’s Bella Addormentata (Dormant Beauty) and Sangue del mio sangue (Blood of My Blood) and Laura Bispuri’s Vergine giurata (Sworn Virginand Figlia mia (Daughter of Mine), all starring one of the strongest Italian interpreters of our time: Alba Rohrwacher. For more info on the retrospective please click HERE.

Enjoy here below Part 1 of The Wonders case-study. Part 2 available at the link at the bottom of the article.

Le Meraviglie (The Wonders), written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, is the coming of age story of an adolescent, Gelsomina, and of her conflicted relationship with a father figure who wants to force the inexorable pressing of her adulthood into a muffled, bucolic world out of time. Gelsomina’s family lives in the Umbrian-Tuscan countryside, leading the rural life of the beekeepers, an old-fashioned world where the development of the modern means of production, the advent of capitalism and industrialization, seem never to have passed and never having affected its virginal genuineness.

The family is constituted by the authoritarian father-master from German origins, Wolfang; the young Italian mother, Angelica (played by Alba Rohrwacher); the younger sister, Marinella; two younger sisters; and Cocò, a young German girl, a handyman and aide of the family. A microcosm of all women to whom the patriarch Wolfang tries to infuse his archaic ideals, with authority but also with a sort of rough sweetness and profound respect. Is Gelsomina, however, the one with whom he has the strongest, visceral relationship. She is the eldest, the one whom everybody address as the head of the family, the one that probably, in her father’s vision, incorporates those male psycho-physical traits that he failed to pass to a son who unfortunately did not arrive. Gelsomina is the foreman of all the honey production jobs, the one who knows its rules and rituality, the only one who Wolfang trusts to coordinate the operations. The other sisters are too little, and the second daughter, Marinella, is a happy slacker. The mother is instead a very practical, straightforward figure. Theirs is a life lived according to the values of pauperism, a protected, existential condition that it is about to suffer the advent of the large-scale industrial productions, that will soon eat alive the family-run businesses. In the immobility of their picture-perfect life is Gelsomina, who starts a first movement, who starts contemplating the possibility of change. The switch in her perspective is triggered by the fairy-tale encounter with Milly Catena (played by Monica Bellucci), a beautiful but over the top host of a TV show – Il Paese delle Meraviglie (The Wonderland).

The program is a contest, a sort of reality show, where different family-run businesses from the area can participate by showcasing their local products. The win is a significant amount of money. Gelsomina is charmed by the Fairy Godmother fascination of Milly, who becomes for the girl an icon, a figure of the woman that she would like to be one day. Gelsomina has been persuaded that winning that contest would be crucial for the future of her family’s business. This idea is of course, strongly opposed by the father Wolfang.

Another disturbing element for the quiet life of the family will be the arrival of Martin, a young German orphan, who will spend a few months with them to help Wolfang with the heaviest jobs. Martin is another reason for restless upheavals for Gelsomina, the gradual transition from the age of puberty to adulthood; the first innocent, erotic impulses towards the other sex. Gelsomina, the heroine of this story, is therefore animated by two complementary desires, albeit apparently different: the conscious desire to make her family win the television program, and the unconscious one that moves her deep wills – to emancipate herself from the paternal figure and run towards her adult age symbolized by the marvelous mirror of the woman who she would like on day to be, Milly, and by the sentimental object of her desire, Martin. This seems to be the controlling idea of the film, which strongly archetypal, symbolic, but also psychological nature suggests a structural analysis that could, therefore, be based on the model of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey and the analysis of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: it is in effect a story of separation – initiation – return. But Alice Rohrwacher’s aesthetic undeniably refers also to minimalist narrative styles, a magical neo-realism, where often the photogenic beauty of the frame slows down the narrative rhythms to contemplate the wonders of nature that are the other big protagonists of the film. 

The neorealist quotations are therefore well articulated both photographically and on the contents level, starting from the choice of the name Gelsomina, which immediately reminds us of Fellini’s Giulietta Masina in La Strada, who in fact, plays a character named Gelsomina.

At the link below please find Part 2 of the study analyzing the movie in the three acts in which the narration is divided, highlighting the various rites of passage of the heroine and the function of the different archetypal figures she encounters in her journey, read through Vogler’s Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth


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