“The Wonder” on Netflix: an academic and boring film on religious obscurantism

The new film by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, starring Florence Pugh, talks about the power of stories: those that blind us, those that save us. Alas, his will have especially bored us.

The Wonder begins by breaking the fourth wall: we see a set under construction on an empty movie set, while a voice-over challenges us to explain that the characters we are going to meet have total faith in their story, that we don’t are nothing without stories, before we insistently summon ourselves to believe in this one. This distantly meta, oversignificant and shoehorned intro will have the sole function of coating an otherwise perfectly academic film with a semblance of iconoclasm; but its patent artificiality betrays a certain voluntarism.

The story in question is that told by a rural community, deeply religious, in the bigoted Irish countryside of the 19th century. That of Anna, a young girl touched by grace, who would have stopped eating for four months, without the slightest consequence on her health. A miracle. So, to authenticate this divine act, the authorities of the village call upon Lib Wright, a nurse from England (it is Florence Pugh) and a nun, who will have the mission of observing the young girl day and night, she is also a fierce believer, and convinced that God expresses himself through her voluntary fasting. But after only a few days of observation, the skeptic Lib, assisted by a journalist who has come to cover the affair (Tom Burke), realizes that the “heavenly manna” which feeds Anna could be less immaterial than announced, and day a deception. Anna’s health is in danger, so Lib will have to use tricks and tell the young girl a story to save her from his deleterious influence.

A frenzied classicism

Nothing new under the sun (of Satan?) and The Wonder unfolds his story with a frenzied classicism that borders on austerity, both formal and narrative. Dull landscapes, disembodied dialogues, distantly figurative staging: the Netflix film by the Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Oscar winner in 2017 for A fantastic woman, crowned best foreign language film) never goes beyond its subject, after all common, and is content to illustrate it flatly, plunging us into a languid torpor which often borders on boredom. There was, however, enough to frustrate this overly wise film, which deals with religious obscurantism and the blind madness to which it leads, other than by breaking the fourth wall for no apparent reason, a convincing symbol of a certain conceptual dryness. “We are nothing without stories”, twice reminds us of the voiceover. Not sure that we are transformed by this one.

The Wonder by Sebastián Lelio, on Netflix November 16.

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