Cannes Check 2014: Alice Rohrwacher’s ‘The Wonders’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, one of the clear (or not-so-clear) wild cards of the lineup: Alice Rohrwacher's “The Wonders.”

The director: Alice Rohrwacher (Italian, 33 years old). Amid the laundry list of usual-usual auteurs returning to the Competition, a few names raised eyebrows when Thierry Fremaux announced the lineup last month, and Rohrwacher's was one of them. After making a strong impression in Directors' Fortnight three years ago with her debut feature, the Catholic Church-themed coming-of-age drama “Corpo Celeste,” an Un Certain Regard berth seemed the logical next step for her follow-up, but this was an unexpected promotion for the young Italian, one of two female directors in the lineup.

Born in Tuscany to Italian and German parents — her father was a beekeeper, which appears to figure in “The Wonders” — Rohrwacher majored in literature and philosophy before studying screenwriting at Turin's Holden School. She is also a musician who has performed for the theater. Rohrwacher cut her teeth as a director, editor and cinematographer on documentaries, before writing and directing “Corpo Celeste,” which travelled the festival circuit extensively in 2011. Her older sister is the well-regarded actress Alba Rohrwacher, star of such films as “I Am Love” and “The Solitude of Prime Numbers.”

The talent: Oh, and “The Wonders,” which marks the first collaboration between the Rohrwacher sisters. Stepping up the name value considerably from Rohrwacher's debut, the film also stars Italian-Hollywood crossover bombshell Monica Bellucci (whom IMDb claims is 49 years old, though that hardly seems possible), Belgium's Sam Louwyck (“Bullhead”), German character actor Andre Hennicke (“Downfall,” “A Dangerous Method”) and Margarethe Tiesel, the Austrian star of “Paradise: Love.” The lead, however, appears to be child actress Alexandra Lungu, in her feature debut. Rohrwacher again wrote the film; returning from her debut are cinematographer Helene Louvart (best known for “Pina” and “The Beaches of Agnes”) and editor Marco Spoletini (who also cut “Gomorrah” and “Reality” for Matteo Garrone).

The pitch: Not a surfeit of details on this one, though it appears to share female adolescent focus of “Corpo Celeste,” while there's a hint of Yorgos Lanthimos' “Dogtooth” in the premise. A father (Louwyck) constructs a secluded environment around his family to protect them from the apocalypse; 12-year-old Gelsomina (Lungu) is named its heir, and placed entirely in charge of her three younger sisters. The hidden rules of their existence, however, are tasted by the intervention of the outside world, as a young German boy arrives on a youth rehabilitation programme, while their local community takes part in a TV reality contest presented by Bellucci's character. 

The prestige: Limited, given that Rohrwacher only has one previous feature to her name, and not a very widely seen one at that. But it was a strong debut that bought her a lot of cred on the international festival circuit: on the back of an acclaimed Cannes Directors' Fortnight premiere, the film found slots in the Sundance, New York, London and Karlovy Vary fests, among many others.

The buzz: With little advance word on the film itself, the mystery factor is itself a source of buzz: promising as her debut was, Rohrwacher was on few people's lists of directors due a Competition slot, so what does Thierry Fremaux know that we don't? With the minimal presence of female filmmakers at Cannes now an annual taking point, an undue amount of pressure is on those selected to deliver, particularly with more established names in Un Certain Regard. Sometimes surprise selections turn out to have hidden strengths (Andrea Arnold's “Red Road” is a good example), though the selectors' gambles don't always pay off.

The odds: Oddsmakers are currently exercising caution on Rohrwacher: Jigsaw Lounge has her midfield at 16-1, Paddy Power a little longer at 20-1, though those will obviously shorten fast if the film proves a critical hit. The tidiest possible narrative for this year's festival would be to have the first female director to win the Palme d'Or crown the second; Jane Campion may or may not play ball, but if the film is special, the temptation to anoint a new major-league auteur may be irresistible. Full disclosure: I've taken a small flutter on Rohrwacher myself, though obviously the safer bet for a relatively untested name is the Jury Prize, which has recently been handed to female directors like Arnold and Maïwenn. Juries also never tire of handing acting prizes to novices and children, so chalk up Lungu as a possibility.

The date: “The Wonders” premieres on Sunday, May 18.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll profile the only African film in Competition: Abderrahmane Sissako's “Timbuktu.”