Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio has never lived in Ireland and was born more than 7,000 miles away from the setting of his third English-language feature The Wonder. Yet in many ways the Latin American was the perfect director for the job. The film, which has its Canadian premiere at TIFF on September 13 after a first public screening at Telluride, is based on Irish-Canadian Room author Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, itself inspired by the Victorian era phenomenon of the ‘fasting girls’ who could survive long periods seemingly without eating.
Florence Pugh stars as Lib Wright, a fictitious Nightingale nurse who is summoned from England to post-famine Ireland in the 1860s by an all-male town council of religious locals. She is to investigate the case of Anna, an 11-year-old girl (Kila Lord Cassidy) who has not consumed a morsel in months. “Probably the fact I grew up in the south of Chile in a little town during the [Augusto Pinochet] dictatorship in a super-Catholic country was my way in [to the story],” the director says via Zoom from Santiago. “I felt I understood the dynamics, even though I come from so far away and English is not my native language.”
The Wonder serves as period drama, philosophical inquiry and commentary on contemporary times all rolled into one, with a little meta cinema thrown in for good measure. It is also typical Lelio territory in that it champions women who confront societal norms — like his Oscar winner A Fantastic Woman, previous English-language films Gloria Bell (an adaptation of his own Gloria) and Disobedience, and the upcoming Bride for A24 (Lelio is currently developing the script but prefers not to speculate if it will be his next film).
In The Wonder, the sacred orthodoxies are the teachings of the Catholic Church and the domineering town fathers who only want answers they can handle. Wright and a nun take shifts observing the child, whose attentive family keeps daily vigil. The girl does not look particularly unwell and believes she is being sustained by “manna from heaven”. It is not long before god-fearing pilgrims are milling about the place, as well as a sceptical journalist from London (played by Tom Burke).
Besides Pugh, Burke and a top-notch cast that includes Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones, the other aces up the UK-Ireland production’s sleeve are producers Ed Guiney of Element Pictures and Tessa Ross of House Productions, the company she runs with Juliette Howell that is fully owned by BBC Studios. Howell and Element’s 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 was hooked when the producers approached him. “I found it so gripping and loved the way it escalates at the end. As in the film, you’re trying to understand what’s going on and who is behind [the mystery], if anyone.”
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 Venice premiere Don’t Worry Darling. She only needed a few days to say yes. “When I knew Lib was going to be channelled by Florence, I knew we had a film,” says Lelio, who describes Pugh as “magnificent”. The project was taken to market and Netflix snapped up worldwide rights. The seven-week production started last September, with the exteriors filmed about an hour outside Dublin and the interiors shot in the capital.
Lelio concedes that while directing an English-language film was tricky, it was not in and of itself prohibitively challenging. What exacerbated things were the Covid-19 protocols. “The masks made it super difficult,” he recalls. “In order to direct you have to be very expressive with the team, and voice and language are some of the most important tools. My English isn’t perfect and sometimes when I needed time to find the words, the mask made it difficult.”
Faith and reason collide in The Wonder. Wright, who we learn tended to soldiers in the Crimean War alongside Florence Nightingale, is a rational yet scarred figure who initially brings a stern demeanour to her observer role. After time spent with Anna, the nurse displays a willingness to adapt and listen to her heart. Meanwhile the menfolk to whom she reports remain steadfast in their doctrinal view.
“I love Lib as a character because you can say she’s convinced reason is the way [forward] and she has to transcend that,” says Lelio. The nurse is trained in science — “a belief system that’s always evolving” — whereas the men are elsewhere on the spectrum. “Faith is a belief system, too. The difference is that usually faith is a fixed belief system and that’s when problems start. I’m not advocating against faith. I’m advocating for spiritual and intellectual flexibility.”
The Chilean filmmaker was also drawn to The Wonder because the story centred on a relationship between a woman and a girl “as opposed to a romance or something else”. He leans in. “Every time I get a script or a novel or something that could turn into a film, when it’s about a woman my attitude changes.”
He recently dug up the first exercise he shot as a student in 1998 at Santiago’s La Escuela de Cine. “It was an exercise in parallel stories, about four women, different ages. So it’s been there, you know…” When he was making Gloria, the drama about a free-spirited older woman played by Paulina Garcia, who won the Berlinale Silver Bear in 2013 for her role, Lelio says he had to convince people that 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 has tried to change and now it’s more [acceptable] why, as a man, I’m portraying a woman’s character fairly, with real interest, admiration even.” Yet he does not subscribe to hagiography and takes care to present his protagonists’ “lights and shadows… a human being”.
Unlike compatriot Pablo Larrain, Lelio has veered away from telling more overt stories about the Pinochet regime that cast a shadow over Chile during his youth. Yet inevitably that chilling passage of history informs his approach to filmmaking. “It was a very dark time,” he says of growing up in the 1980s. “Culturally very shut down, a sad country. Now it’s changing, but I do believe my connection with stories probably has to do with where I grew up and how important religion was here and this imposition of a strong ideology.
“Now we’re deconstructing that as a society,” he continues. “That’s why it’s important we have stories and systems of belief, subjectively, collectively. Belief is a thought on which you insist and insist, but thought can be rethought. You can reverse-engineer 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 that’s not imposed by a dictator so it has legitimacy.’”
The clash of worldviews and the way the stories and beliefs of the characters and communities in The Wondershape their destinies makes the film relevant today, Lelio insists. “We are in the middle of a storytelling process. Storytelling is not just entertainment; storytelling is politics and we have to be able to create beautiful, fair, inspiring stories for ourselves in films, but also with the societies that we co-create.”