The film started in the dark. There were some hazy yellow headlights from three different vehicles which eventually converge upon a spot overgrown with wild grass. Some Italian carabinis were directing their torchlights everywhere, presumably looking for a fugitive in a desolate part of rural Italy until they touch the exterior of a dilapidated stone hut. Then the camera landed on the feet of a man and then a woman in a very primitive bed with some not too tidy sheets. They were the feet of first Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) who came from Germany to escape the ubiquitous "consumer culture" now consuming Europe and then those of his emaciated but faithful French speaking wife Angelica( Alba Rohrwacher). As the film develops, we learn that Wolfgang is the father of 4 daughters ranging from teenage to about 5 or 6 (we never really know the true ages of any of the characters) whom he is determined should never be "contaminated" or "corrupted" by "civilization", with the assistance of the children's aunt Cocò (Sabine Timoteo) in their rural hut. The family relied upon domesticating wild bees for their honey and some subsistence farming to sustain a spare but "natural" way of life and appear to be a fairly closely knit family unit in their enclave in an unforgiving environment visited by unpredictable but brief summer storms but which has a certain bleak beauty which their pig-farming neighbor would dearly like to exploit for commercial tourism.
Shortly after the film started, an apparently autistic teenage boy with a long history of petty crimes was brought in under a certain adolescent reform program in which he would stay with a host family for two years at the end of which if the relevant report of his "conduct" is "favorable", he would be released. Under the scheme, as explained to Wolfgang and Angelica by a fat and officious middle-aged lady "probation officer" who talked as if she knew everything about child rearing and formation according to the latest educational theories, the host family would receive a handsome government subsidy for participating in the program, something Wolfgang could certainly use in improving their primitive farm etc. From then on, the story develops along two meandering lines: the slow and silent bond building between Gesommina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the eldest daughter groomed by Wolfgang to take over the bee-keeping farm and the new comer Martin (Luis Huiga Lograno) and the private fantasy of Gelsomina for a taste of the world of artificial glamor prompted by the accidental appearance of Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci), dressed as an ancient and mysterious Etruscan goddess in the salt flats during the shooting of a TV commercial for a competition to find the "best traditional" farmer in the region, when Wolfgang was having some fun with the family in a mid-summer swim in the beautiful blue sea close by.
Eventually, without asking for permission for his father, Gelsomina entered the competition. On the day that one of the judges visited their farm and said it was the best honey that he had tasted and intimated that they would be the winner and Angelica happily announced the good news to Wolfgang upon his return home, he too was ready to make another announcement viz. he had brought home a live camel which he promised Gelsomina. Upon hearing the news, Wolfgang was dumbstruck. A row developed in which Angelica and Cocò sided with Gelsomina and the little domestic crisis was resolved. When the film ends, we see the whole family, all dressed up in some cheap edition of "ancient" Etruscan clothes on a nearby island during a live broadcast of the final of the TV competition and when Wolfgang was interviewed for the "secret" of his bee-keeping, he said that instead of letting the bees out to hunt for honey from wild flowers, he would take the bees in their bee-boxes to the wild flowers and stuttered twice that his secret was the word "natural". They did not win but their pig-raising neighbor who wanted to develop the region into a tourist attraction did. When it was time to take the boat to return home after the show, Martin was found missing. The carabinis launched a search. But Martin could not be found. All returned home. The following day (?), Gelsomina swam to their secret hideout on the nearby island, amongst the limestone caves and there found Martin waiting. When Gelsomina returned home, she found the whole family sleeping out in the open upon the earth under the sky, as Wolfgang loved to do on hot summer nights but Wolfgang did not appear angry about Gelsomina going away without telling him, as he would normally do. He said that there was still a place for her amongst them. When the film ends, we see Gelsomina lying snugly between her dad, her mom, her aunt and her sisters.
I like the film, especially the way Alice Rohrwacher tells her story and the way she conveys her "message" if any, allmost entirely in beautifully composed images, with great sensitivity to side lighting (thanks to the cinematography by Hèléne Louvart) without any explanation . Although Wolfgang claims to be "natural" in his bee-rearing methods and claims to hate all forms "artificiality" endemic in contemporary "civilization", he nonetheless forcefully removed the wild bees from their "natural habitats" and took them home in his run down truck. As a result, he is often stung by the bees, which he knew is a sign that the bees treat him as an enemy,(as he taught Martin during his first such trips) and always has to ask Gelsomina to help him remove the stings each time he goes out with her to bring in the wild bees in or take them out. Gelsomina never got stung, not even once and the bees would gladly crawl into her mouth and upon her face as if they treated her as one of their own, without the slightest sign of being nervous in her presence. Unlike her father Wolfgang, who does not seem to respect the bees by the way he removes them from the tree branches or the beehives from the bee-boxes, the way he does not respect her daughters, always ordering them to do this and to do that and losing his temper whenever he feels they are disobeying him, Gelsomina is always gentle with them and removes them with care from wherever they are, the way she treats Martin: she never forces Martin to do anything against his wishes, the way Wolfgang does. This point is further emphasized when Cocó forcibly took Martin's hand to place it into Gelsomina's, saying words to the effect that at a certain age and under certain circumstances, it is "natural" that they should come together. Ironically, it is precisely such "enforced naturalness" which made Martin run away from Gelsomina on the island where the TV final took place. If there is any one in the film who is "natural", it would be Gelsomina. Unlike her father, whose over-emphasis on "naturalness" has become almost an "intellectual dogma", a "naturalness" of the head instead of a "naturalness" of the heart, Gelsomina is a natural "natural". Her "naturalness" springs directly and spontaneously from the deepest part of her personality, her psyche, her soul. Is that not why everyone she meets finds her "natural naturalness" so disarming? There is a scene in the film in which in the privacy of their childhood play, she asks her younger sister Marinella ( Agnesi Graziani) to "drink" a shaft of sunlight streaming in from the window in the barn where they keep the sheep. She doesn't have to "force" or "enforce" her naturalness upon those around her, including her mother, her aunt, her sisters and Martin, even the bees and the camel in their yard. She seldom speaks. She doesn't need to. Her body and the way she treats other people say everything that needs to be said for her. Unlike Milly Catena, whose image of being the natural goddess of the Etruscan is specially "manufactured" and "produced" for the consumption of TV audience, Gelsomina exudes a natural charm, an endearing intimacy which encourages others to do the same: at the end of the TV show, Catena unhesitatingly removes her beautiful "goddess" like wig which struck Gelsomina as so beautiful when Gelsomina first met her during her shooting of the introductory TV commercial for the competition, saying that she feels so tired having to wear that all day long, and reveals to Gelsomina her "real" looks as an aging woman, wrinkles and all, just like any other ordinary woman. Gelsomina appears the true goddess of Nature and helps Martin, who finds it utterly impossible to use "normal" human language to communicate with others and must do so through either silence or his very unique style of bird-like "whistle-song", make good his "escape" from the law after their final rendezvous in the lime stone cave in the bosom of the Earth. In a certain sense, is the "naturalness" of Wolfgang as "false" as the apparent "natural" glamour of Catena? What is "naturalness"? I think Alice Rohrwacher has her own answers, in the form of this thoughtful film.