In The Wonder, Sebastián Lelio warns against believing everything we hear

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Sebastián Lelio with Florence Pugh

The Wonder
Wednesday 16

With eight movies and an Oscar on his resume (2018’s Best Foreign Film, A Fantastic Woman), Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio oozes confidence. His new film, The Wonder, provocatively opens on an almost-bare stage. A disembodied voice tells us we’re about to watch a work of fiction. Slowly, the camera pans to reveal the inside of a ship where Florence Pugh is having soup.

With this shot, Lelio establishes every story has a bias that usually favours whoever’s telling it. Lelio recommends a pinch of salt for both soup and narratives.

The Wonder, based on a novel by Emma Donoghue, takes place in Ireland in 1859. It’s barely a decade after the Great Irish Famine. Lib Wright (Pugh), an English nurse with a chip on her shoulder, is hired to certify or refute a miracle: an 11-year-old girl is believed to have survived for months without food.

The job is harder than expected. Politicians and religious figures interfere with Lib’s mission. On top of that, the girl has become a celebrity who is bringing tourist money to the impoverished region.

I caught up with Lelio during the Toronto International Film Festival. We go back a few years, to when he brought his made-in-Chile indie The Year of the Tiger to TIFF in 2011.

The beginning of the film reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, which underline the medium’s artificiality.

It comes from the televised theatre I used to watch when I was a kid. Very Brechtian. It was important for me to say, ‘this is fiction’. The Wonder refers to the stories we tell ourselves and end up relying on. In the movie, we have belief systems that collide: science, which has doubt baked in and consequently is willing to adapt, and faith, which sticks to a perceived truth and would rather bend reality to fit its narrative.

A problem we still face today.

That’s why I think this is a movie for now. Currently, we’re surrounded by stories. Reality has fizzled. Florence Pugh’s character, who has a scientific mind, is willing to question her own narrative and transcend it to save the girl.

You wrote the script with the book’s author Emma Donoghue, and Alice Birch (Lady Macbeth). For someone used to write alone, how was collaboration?

Emma was very generous and willing to find the elements in her book that would resonate with me. Her previous novel [Room] was also adapted into a movie, and she was aware how brutal the process could be.

With Alice, we’ve been trying to work together for a long time. She has a modern voice and helps the dialogue sound contemporary without sacrificing historical accuracy.

Casting Florence Pugh, a much in-demand performer, was a coup. How did you do it?

We wrote the adaptation without an actor in mind. Her name came up only at the end. We sent her the script and she signed up within a week. Florence has incredible range and the [power] to carry the movie. She’s in 98 per cent of the scenes. Her character is morally complex but you can’t help siding with her, empathizing with her dilemma and understanding her decisions — as irrational as they may seem.

Since you made Gloria (2013), your leads have always been women. Do you have a more introspective project hidden somewhere?

The time will come. For now, I’m filming what I can. The Wonder was on the running with other projects and materialized first. It’s how it goes — a bit mysterious and hardly planned. My movies, beyond having female leads clashing against the patriarchy, are about characters overcoming themselves.

The Politics Of Storytelling

Sebastián Lelio was in France during Chile’s 2019 inequality protests. He couldn’t stand watching from a distance and flew back to his native country. He had no idea he would end up staying for three years because of COVID. The protests led to the drafting of a new constitution… which was swiftly rejected by popular vote last September.

How do you see this ending?

Writing a new constitution is like creating an intersubjective story capable of captivating us for 40, 50 years. This is why I was interested in making The Wonder: telling stories is not just entertainment. It’s politics. It’s important that as a collective we’re capable of building stories that push us forward and take us to a place of light. There’s too much storytelling right now that looks back, like wanting to return to the 1930s. It’s a rough patch. ■