‘The Wonders,’ ‘Reality’ and ‘The Great Beauty’: Bleak Assessments of the Relics of Tradition in Contemporary Italy

Le Meraviglie (translated in English as The Wonders), with sleepy wonderment, hovers around a Tuscan family of survivalist beekeepers as they complete an array of quotidian tasks — all informed and complicated by the family’s power structure, which itself is informed and complicated through their resistance to an evermore corporatizing, modernizing Italy. Alice Rohrwacher’s film, which just arrived in very limited release in the USA — after winning the Grand Prix at 2014 Cannes Film Festival — is the stylistic opposite of audaciously garish films like Matteo Garrone’s Reality and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, but provokes similar questions, awakening similar Italian cultural anxieties.

The family’s arc sees them navigating the tensions between the encroachment of modernity on tradition in Italy, and the ways the profiteering forces in modern Italy — the fifth highest grosser from tourism worldwide — benefit from turning its foundation in ancient traditions and denominational customs into kitsch. One of the most fascinating ways to consider national identity is through a country’s relationship to the exemplar of distilled, reduced, consumable culture that is reality television, and both Rohrwacher and Garrone’s films attempt this. Comparing both representations of hyperbolized “realities” in Le Meraviglie and Reality, and aligning them with the more general, highly aestheticized assessment of Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga and recession-era Italy in The Great Beauty, we see — through these unique visions — a country caught between globalization and the fact that its tourist economy relies on ideals of provincialism, antiquity and religiosity. (Beware of mild spoilers — for films which aren’t really spoil-able — below.)

The character at the center of Le Meraviglie is Gelsomina (despite the  La Strada-recalling name, this is the only of the three films mentioned above that doesn’t feel like a deliberate attempt to out-Fellini Fellini by applying his aesthetic of excess and grotesquerie to a modern vision of spiritually-deteriorating Catholic ornamentalism). Rohrwacher follows Gelsomina as she surreptitiously signs her family up for a one-off reality TV competition called “Countryside Wonders” — a sort of surrealist, agrarian version of any Britain/America/Wherever’s Got Talent/Idols — because they’re struggling to keep their honey business afloat. The tempestuous patriarch, a German-born man who may have secluded his family within this lifestyle to avoid exactly the types of trash-cultural influence affiliated with reality TV, is initially livid, but eventually gives in. They’re taken to an island where a local reality TV personality, played by Monica Bellucci, interviews them and other farming families, in a set-designed cave, sporting a platinum blonde goddess costume and, with overwrought reverence, monologuing about the excellence of pork products and Etruscan tradition.

Throughout the film, Rohrwacher — herself the daughter of a beekeeping family in Tuscany — posits a delicate (and never overtly idealistic) mythology surrounding Gelsomina’s wise-beyond-her-years skills, both in matters of beekeeping and emotional family management. The character seems, especially through a performance in which bees fly out of her mouth, like she could be figurative descendent of the Etruscan mythological prophets Tages (believed to be born of a plowed field) and Vegoia (who prophesized about the division and order of land).

But despite their purported interest in tradition and Etruscan lore, the judges of the competition do not select Gelsomina’s family as the winners — regardless of the way Rohrwacher’s camera focuses on her, during the bee-birthing, as though she herself could contain all the mysteries of the land and its past. When asked why they do what they do, the patriarch of the apiarist family begins to respond, “The world is going to end,” and is cut off by the Bellucci-Goddess. This family is too eccentric, too hard to sculpt into a marketable champion: the prize instead goes to a the family that makes pork and is decent at chanting traditional tunes. (The funny/sad thing is that the competition itself is so small scale.)

The father’s statement could be indicative, as the judges surely see it, of a paranoiac’s cultic sequestering of his family.  But it could also be a prescient vision of the end of small farming, and its relegation to kitschy rituals like that in which the family are currently partaking. Fittingly, the last shot of the film is of the farmhouse, selectively filmed to hint that it’s been stripped of any signs of existence, as though the family were all either apparitions of the past or, more realistically, not invincible — even in the furthest reaches of rural Tuscany — to cultural change. And as though voicing the feelings of the simulacra of all old, commercially appropriated symbols, Monica Belluci’s character’s last line, uttered in a moment of inexplicable intimacy with Gelsomina, is “I’m tired.”

The film’s title is particularly telling in its sly encapsulation in the film in the title of the competition. “Wonder” bears a sense of the natural and the divine, but also sounds like hyperbole used to sell something — a magic trick, an edible product, a tourist attraction. 

While Le Meraviglie shows a small-scale reality competition banking off perceptions of agrarian Italian quaintness, traditionalism, and spirituality, Reality exhibits a reality TV show that entirely substitutes mythologies affiliated with the past for rapidly self-renewing mythological figures: the film juxtaposes the relics of old empires, old agrarian customs, and old religions with the worship of personalities on the Italian version of the internationally reconstituted Dutch TV show known in English as Big Brother. Garrone’s film follows a Neapolitan fishmonger/family man named Luciano with an untapped performative side who decides he’s going to audition for the series. After he’s informed that there’s some vague form of interest in him, he begins to see signs that he’s being followed by people who work for Big Brother — so they can determine his worthiness — throughout his daily life, all of which becomes an audition. This notion sees him obsessing over the (much younger) participants (who’ve already been selected — though he continues to believe he’ll be included later in the season) as they copulate and compete with one another from within their surveyed “home.”

Manohla Dargis noted in her review that Reality is “a look at an Italy engrossed with rituals and spectacle, in watching and being watched,” and this contemporary surveillance and “judgement” is smartly paralleled in the giant Jesus statue towering over the square in Naples where Luciano sells his fish. Through filmmaking deliberately imitative of the ostentatious decors of both Catholic “realities” — historically known for designing spirality through breathtakingly ornate design — and the tawdry “realities” of reality TV, Garrone shows how a country rooted in an old form of monetized ritualism could be susceptible to a more globalized, modern form of the same. He neither completely excoriates nor reveres Italy’s past, but rather posits how past cultural obsessions could translate into a obsession with what he seems to peg as new, parallel (but amoral) fictions. He seems to see present day Italy — especially insomuch as it’s stratified between northern wealth and southern poverty — as particularly bleak, as he did, after all, make the film titled Gomorrah about the current state of Naples. He thus likewise draws here on the ways the more globalized, corporate, political and religious centers in the North might exploit and control the much poorer South. Indeed, in order to fulfill his false dream and live his false reality, Luciano finally makes a pilgrimage to Rome to break onto the Bir Brother set.

Which brings us to the ancient center itself from the agrarian margins of Tuscany in Le Meraviglie to the south in Reality — then finally to Rome. Rome is the centerpiece of The Great Beauty, which follows a washed up socialite journalist as he wanders through the stylized bacchanalia of Paolo Sorrentino’s version of the city, which Wesley Morris aptly dubbed akin to “Spring Breakers on Cialis.” Interestingly, Sorrentino is from Naples, but in The Great Beauty — perhaps the most all-encompassing work of cultural anxiety about the Italy of Berlusconi (whose resignation took place around the time this film was made) — he decided he wanted to turn his focus to Rome. As he explained in an interview with the New York Times prior to his film’s Oscar win, he saw the city as the epitome of a beautifully adorned void, of “the sense that life is futile,” and saw Berlusconi as the key contributor to “to this culture of nothing,” a “culture of distraction” and a “culture of escapism” that came from the fact that under Berlusconi, important issues were always overshadowed by scandal. The Great Beauty is a plunge into the country’s physical, political and cultural core, which Sorrentino shows as in crisis over reconciling the forces of globalized nihilism and a still-pervasive sense of Catholic devoutness, as well as, more simply of new and old.

In The Wonders, reality TV gilds and commodifies tradition for mass appeal, while Reality shows that mass appeal’s similar overwhelming of old rituals. Both of these films showed people working in agriculture in Italy’s physical and social margins, and the ways they related to or avoided pervasive, centralized pop culture through reality TV — while The Great Beauty cynically depicts the bleak epicenter of that culture’s influence.

It’d seem crucial that Italy continue to appeal to tourists as a country rooted in tradition, insomuch as tourism is such a key contributor to the Italian economy, and insomuch maintaining stability post-Recession is a real concern for a country second in debt in the EU to Greece. Thus, these films depict an Italy that must reify itself as an emblem of traditionalism, which of course conflicts with the inevitabilities of globalization, and of the appeal of less traditional culture to actual Italian civilians. All of these are considered, to different degrees within these films, under the long and continued reign of the odd coupling of excess and piety of Catholicism, as well as the (much shorter, but until its end in 2011, seemingly interminable) leadership of Berlusconi.  Viewed and considered together, these three films form a map of contemporary Italian influences that seem to lead all three to a cynical conclusion of a place experiencing paralysis.