#TBT La Cienaga and The Wonders

by Hayat Hyatt 3 days ago in review

Lucretia Martell's La Cienaga and Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders in conversation.

#TBT La Cienaga and The Wonders

Lucrecia Martell’s La Ciénaga and Alice Rohrwacher The Wonders are both female-led vehicles that deconstruct notions of the modern family. The two films are also personal reflections of their directors, with Ciénaga based in the suburbs where Martel was raised and Wonders also using Rochwacher’s place of birth as reference. From the perspective of their protagonists, beyond-their-years emotionally intelligent teenage girls, the features combine elements of satire and realism to convey intergenerational difference; also relying on feminist phenomenology to unpack the patriarchal order consistent with traditional family structures.

The Wonders is a coming-of-age drama set in Etruia, a village on the border of Tuscany, that follows a family of beekeepers who harvest honey in their backyard. Wolfgang (Sam Louwyk) has installed his oldest daughter Gelsomina (Alexandra Lungu) in second command. However, the business if failing, mostly due to Wolfgang’s tyrannical nature, resulting in his wife Angelia (Alba Rohrwacher) threatening departure/divorce several times in the film. A chance encounter with a television crew taping a commercial for The Wonders, a kitsch competition program to find the best local businesses of Italy, inspires Gelsomina to secretly submit her family’s honey to save their faltering business.

There’s a lightheartedness to The Wonder’s familial portrait that contrasts sharply with Martel’s sardonic La Ciénaga. Set in the Salta province of Argentina, it’s less coming-of-age, and more a portrait of decline. The work begins with matriarch, Mecha (Garcela Borges) hosting a poolside party with her friends that abruptly concludes with a violent accident. The ensuing scenes highlight her children’s resilience and autonomy, gained mostly in consequence of having a pair of despondent parents.

Despite aesthetic and tonal differences, Rohrwacher has cited Martell as an influence on her work, and there is correlation between Wonders and Ciénaga. First, the two share a preoccupation with the corporal. Martel’s Ciénaga captures bodily trauma and injury that allude to personal and parental negligence – with the matriarch injuring herself in the opening of the film, followed by scenes of her children suffering from various physical ailments that go mostly unmentioned with the exception of a boy missing an eye. While Rochwacher’s Wonders highlights isolation and intimacy of a family living an ‘off-the-grid’ lifestyle, albeit under the behest of their patriarch, Wolfgang, who’s seen wearing only briefs in most of the film with his youngest girls following suit, in swimming bottoms.

The filmmakers use images of the body as commentary on larger issues within the diegesis of their films and outside of them. In Wonder’s Gelsomina’s family’s bodies are indicative of a people who’ve become accustomed to existing privately on the margins without the prying gaze of outsiders as demonstrated by a scene when they encounter the film crew at a lake near their home. When asked to silence his daughters by a production assistant, Wolfgang retorts that his girls are ‘free.’ The moment is shot as if the assistant were encountering an indigenous family from another time, which is further illustrated when they’re invited to the set full of film equipment, and a crew fully dressed in modern clothes. Wolfgang peruses the set, still only wearing swimming briefs, with a look of confusion.

In La Ciénaga, Martel captures a family who has become stifled in an unbearable stasis. According to Ramsey Glazer, the two falls that bookend the film - the opening with Mecha and penultimate scene’s fatal fall of the young boy – reflect “slow moving mechanisms of change” (312). It’s the children who rush to Mecha’s side when she slips violently and scars her breasts as the adults remain still, immobile from the heat and inebriation. Thereafter the matriarch is seen mostly lounging in her bed dabbing her wounds, as her young children roam the wild of the Salta suburb with guns and tiny weapons. At somepoint they come upon a cow slowly descending into mud; rather than saving it, the children gawk and point their weapons toward it. The descending animal is an unsubtle metaphor of not just Mecha, but the entire bourgeoise class that she and her absent husband represent, and the children an incoming generation fed up with the gluttony and slothfulness of their predecessors. However, the death of the boy signifies a universal futileness for the family.

The corporal is also the site that the directors use to emphasize satire and realism, that combined border on absurdism. La Ciénaga’s children’s injuries are highlighted to comedic effect until its lone fatality. There’s also the opening sequence at Mecha’s pool party. Martel’s camera records the middle-aged bodies, purposefully catching every impossibly grotesque angle. The pool itself, normally a sign of wealth, is filthy hence the title of the film, The Swamp.

In The Wonders, Gelsomina’s submission to the talk show is accepted, however once there Wolfgang’s unstated, but palpable, fears come to partition as the competition show reveals itself to be a condescending marketing ploy, where the show essentially pushes ranchers and farmers to perform their ruralness for a cash prize. In reality, the show proves itself to be an attempt to draw tourists to the agricultural areas. After Wolfgang stumbles over his words in the spotlight, recalling the previous moment where he’s befuddled by the production teams relative urbanity, Gelsomonia steps in and performs a trick that she does earlier in the film for her siblings, where she allows bees to rhythmically dance around her face after flying from her mouth and nose. It’s an uncomfortable moment that also underlines the family’s lack of experience with contemporary social codes, which is insinuated by Wolfgang’s isolationism, and his families tendency to dress in their under clothes.

The scene with the bee dance in The Wonders, is also one example of the filmmaker’s use of feminist phenomenology, which Martel also incorporates in her work. In the scene, Gelsomonia’s father is given the floor to discuss her family’s honey, when it was she who submitted it in the first place. She reclaims her space by inserting herself in front of the camera without a nudge from her father nor any other parental figure. Earlier in the film, when a social worker visits the family and is looking for a reliable opinion on the worthiness of their home for foster care, family friend and co-worker, Coco, immediately cites Gelsomina as the leader of the house. Though Wolfgang has instilled fear in his entire family, Rohwracher films Wonders from the young girl’s perspective. She is the ethical voice and eyes of the film. As is Mecha’s daughter in La Cienga.

Martel blurs exact family ties in Ciénaga, which is a common attribute in her Salta Trilogy . Yet, despite the illegibility, it is Mecha’s daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) who’s role is analogous to Gelsomina’s in Wonders. She is the leader who comes to Mecha’s aide after she falls and is the morality compass of the film’s long character list. As Ciénaga moves along Mecha’s racism becomes more apparent, accusing the indigenous staff of stealing, notably the young servant Isobel who Momi declares love for in one of the opening scenes – which contrasts the relative conservatism of her mother.

Throughout the film, there are news reports about sightings of The Virgin Mary on a building. For a film preoccupied with the body and sociopolitical commentary, or critique, these religious sections play dual roles. In one, it aides in its absurdity or dark comedy, while in the other it implies that miracles happen – which Mecha’s troubled family appear to need. In terms of feminist phenomenology, of all the saints or biblical figures to choose, Martel chose to fill the space with Mary to play with syncretism, symbolism and the audience’s expectations. Off camera, Momi travels to the site to see the Virgin and in the final scene Momi concludes “I went to the place where the virgin appeared. I didn’t see anything.”

While Ciénaga ends on a tragic note of hopelessness, the final scene of The Wonders finds Wolfgang and his clan on better terms. They lose the television competition, and their beekeeping/honey harvesting continues to fail, leading to them essentially losing their home. Surprisingly the family of La Ciénaga are meant to be wealthy, though their homes appear equally downtrodden. Martel’s 2001 critique of an elite bourgeoise class is in conversation with Rohrwacher’s 2014 portrait of a working-class family who lose everything. While one predicts an incoming financial crisis, the other posts a reflection. In light of all this, both provide strong female youths that recognize the mistakes of generations past.

Hayat Hyatt
Hayat Hyatt
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