Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio never lived in Ireland and was born more than 11,000 kilometers from the location of his third English-language feature film. wonderment. Still, in many ways, the Latin American was the perfect director for the job. The film, which will have its Canadian premiere at TIFF on September 13 after a public premiere at Telluride, is based on Irish-Canadian films Bedroom novel of the same name by author Emma Donoghue, itself inspired by the Victorian phenomenon of “fasting girls” who could survive long periods seemingly without eating.
Florence Pugh stars as Lib Wright, a fictional Nightingale nurse who is summoned from England to post-famine Ireland in the 1860s by an all-male town council of local clerics. She must investigate the case of Anna, an 11-year-old girl (Kila Lord Cassidy) who hasn’t had a bite for months. “Probably the fact that I grew up in southern Chile in a small town during the [Augusto Pinochet] dictatorship in a super-Catholic country was my path [to the story]“says the director via Zoom from Santiago. “I felt I understood the dynamics, even though I come from so far away and English is not my first language.”
wonderment serves as period drama, philosophical inquiry, and commentary on contemporary times all rolled into one, with a bit of meta-cinema thrown in for good measure. It’s also typical Lelio territory in that he champions women who clash with societal norms – like his Oscar winner. A fantastic womanprevious movies in english Gloria Bell (an adaptation by him Gloria) and Disobedienceand the next Bride for A24 (Lelio is currently developing the script but prefers not to speculate if it will be his next film).
In wonderment, sacred orthodoxies are the teachings of the Catholic Church and authoritarian family men who only want answers they can handle. Wright and a nun take turns observing the child, whose attentive family watches daily. The girl does not look particularly sick and believes that she is supported by “manna from heaven”. It’s not long before God-fearing pilgrims swarm around the place, along with a skeptical reporter from London (played by Tom Burke).
As well as Pugh, Burke and a top-notch cast including Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones, other British-Irish production assets are producers Ed Guiney of Element Pictures and Tessa Ross of House Productions, the company she runs with Juliette Howell which is wholly owned by BBC Studios. Element’s Howell and Andrew Lowe also produced. “Tessa and Ed had the rights to the book and I had just finished working with Ed on Disobedience“says Lelio, who hooked when the producers approached him. “I found it so captivating and loved how it escalated at the end. Like in the movie, you try to figure out what’s going on and who’s behind it. [the mystery]if someone.”
Lelio and Donoghue worked on the script with Lady Macbeth screenwriter Alice Birch. In early 2021, the producers offered the lead role to Pugh, the star of Midsommar, Lady Macbeth and first in Venice don’t worry darling. It only took him a few days to say yes. “When I knew Lib was going to be channeled by Florence, I knew we had a movie,” says Lelio, who describes Pugh as “beautiful.” The project was released and Netflix picked up the worldwide rights. The seven-week production began last September, with the exteriors filmed around an hour from Dublin and the interiors shot in the capital.
Lelio admits that while making a film in English was tricky, it wasn’t in itself a prohibitive challenge. What exacerbated things were the Covid-19 protocols. “Masks made it super difficult,” he recalls. “To lead you have to be very expressive with the team, and voice and language are among the most important tools. My English is not perfect and sometimes when I needed time to find the words, the mask made things difficult.
Faith and reason collide wonderment. Wright, who we learn cared for Crimean War soldiers alongside Florence Nightingale, is a rational but scarred figure who initially brings a stern attitude to her observer role. After time spent with Anna, the nurse displays a willingness to adapt and listen to her heart. Meanwhile, the men she reports to remain true to their doctrinal standpoint.
“I love Lib as a character because you can tell she’s convinced reason is the way. [forward] and she has to transcend that,” says Lelio. The nurse is trained in science — “a constantly evolving belief system” — while men are elsewhere on the spectrum. “Faith is also a belief system. The difference is that faith is usually a fixed belief system and that’s where the problems start. I am not pleading against faith. I advocate for spiritual and intellectual flexibility.
The Chilean filmmaker was also attracted by wonderment because the story centered on a relationship between a woman and a girl “as opposed to a romance or whatever”. He bends. “Every time I get a script or a novel or something that could turn into a movie, when it comes to a woman, my attitude changes.”
He recently dug up the first exercise he shot as a student in 1998 at La Escuela de Cine de Santiago. “It was an exercise in parallel stories, about four women of different ages. So it was there, you know…” When he was doing Gloriathe drama about a free-spirited older woman played by Paulina Garcia, who won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear in 2013 for her role, Lelio says he had to convince people he wanted to tell a story about a free-spirited woman in her late 50s.
“It was hard to explain before MeToo,” he says. “After 2017 the world tried to change and now it’s over [acceptable] why, as a man, I portray a woman’s character fairly, with real interest, even admiration. However, he does not subscribe to hagiography and is careful to present “shadows and lights… a human being” of his protagonists.
Unlike his compatriot Pablo Larrain, Lelio avoided telling more open stories about the Pinochet regime that cast a shadow over Chile during his youth. Yet, inevitably, this chilling passage in history informs his approach to filmmaking. “It was a very dark time,” he says of his childhood in the 1980s. “Culturally very closed, a sad country. Now that’s changing, but I think my connection to the stories probably has to do with where I grew up and the importance of religion here and this imposition of a strong ideology.
“Now we are deconstructing that as a society,” he continues. “That’s why it’s important that we have stories and belief systems, subjectively, collectively. Belief is a thought that you insist on and insist on, but the thought can be rethought. You can reverse-
design a thought – and that’s what we’re doing as a country, saying, ‘Let’s write another story, another constitution, one that unites us and isn’t imposed by a dictator, so it has legitimacy. “
The clash of worldviews and how the stories and beliefs of characters and communities in wondermentshaping their destiny makes the film relevant today, insists Lelio. “We are in the middle of a storytelling process. Storytelling isn’t just entertainment; storytelling is political and we must be able to create beautiful, fair and inspiring stories for ourselves in films, but also with the societies we co-create.