The beautiful and lethal hunger of ‘La Maravilla’

In a 2004 essay, the late writer Hilary Mantel discussed the story of Gemma Galgani, a 19th-century Italian mystic who refused to eat and had wounds on her hands and feet that she claimed were stigmata; a doctor declared that she had self-inflicted them. she a sewing needle—and she believed that enduring periods of intense physical suffering could atone for all the sins committed by priests. There is something eerily timeless, Mantel writes, about young women who “starve and purge themselves, and… pierce and cut their flesh,” even if we no longer endorse behavior like spiritual devotion. Galgani was canonized as a saint in 1940. While she was revered, few people noticed that she was terrified of doctors, she hated being examined, and she once wrote of a servant who “used to take me into a locked room and undress me.” Maybe it’s easier to believe in miracles than to count on the pain of a girl who’s being hurt in a rather conventional way.

The question of what people believe and what they don’t believe is the main concern of The wonder, a haunting new Netflix adaptation of a 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue. Set in 1862 Ireland, shortly after the Great Famine killed a million people, the film opens as an English nurse, Lib (played by Florence Pugh), travels to a rural part of the country on an unusual assignment. Lib has been hired to keep an eye on an 11-year-old girl who some locals believe is a living miracle: she has been around, healthy and apparently without food, for several months. “She’s a gem,” a visitor says reverently, offering money to the girl’s parents. “A marvel.”

Lib is a northerner, the kind of stern pragmatist determined to dispel this mystical nonsense. But she is almost immediately disarmed by the girl, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who watches Lib during her first examination with a composure that is part sullen, part beatific. “I don’t need to eat,” Anna tells him. “I live on manna. From heaven.” The village elders want to co-opt Anna for their own purposes: the doctor (Toby Jones) sees her as a budding scientific discovery, a girl who can live as a plant on air, water and sunlight. An owner (Brien F. O’Byrne) imagines her as “our first saint since the Middle Ages” A journalist sent to investigate the situation, Will Byrne (Tom Burke), declares that Anna and her family are con artists, conning gullible Catholics for profit.In one scene, director Sebastián Leilo projects Anna’s reclining silhouette against the dark hills of the Irish landscape, making her physical body the backdrop for everyone else’s imaginative theories.

The skies are heavy with rain and pathetic fallacy; Rarely does a movie feel so cold, so wet to the touch. Hunger is the narrative canvas and the setting, not just for Anna, but for everyone. When Lib eats, before and after her turn, she does so with grim efficiency; she piles food on her fork with something akin to resentment as the innkeeper’s four daughters look on in silence. It is revealed that Will lost all of his family to the famine; they nailed the door to his house rather than suffer the indignity of falling dead in the street. Lib finds it difficult to analyze Anna’s prolonged fasting: she initially appears healthy enough, but soon begins to deteriorate under Lib’s strict supervision. “She’s dying,” Lib tells Anna’s mother furiously. “She is chosen onereplies Anna’s mother (Elaine Cassidy), resolute in her belief that while life is brutal and short, heaven and hell are eternal. All but Lib and Will seem curiously numb to the slow death of a child. They are more inclined to fawn over his discipline and admire the holy spectacle of his self-annihilation.


This spectacle, as Mantel’s essay points out, is nothing new. Donoghue writes that he based his book on “nearly fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls,” young women from around the world who became famous for allegedly surviving without food. But Anna is more like Sarah Jacob, a mid-19th century Welsh girl who claimed to have lived without food since she was 10 years old, but died once her fast was under strict medical surveillance. anorexia mirabilisthe condition of refusing to eat for spiritual reasons is as ubiquitous throughout human history as the plague and lice.

Girls have always sought to reduce themselves for reasons they have not always been able to explain. But the modern context fills in the gaps. Starving yourself in a state of secondary amenorrhea (in which a person stops menstruating) is a way to avoid fertility, unwanted marriage, or male desire. (Legend has it that the Italian nun Columba of Rieti was once stripped naked by a group of men who withdrew when they saw the scars from her self-inflicted wounds.) And not eating, as parents of any young child know, is an act of defiance. , which is a position that girls are rarely allowed to do. The wonderHe is, thankfully, reluctant to dwell on Anna’s diminishing physique as the film progresses (the book is more explicit on that front), but Cassidy’s composed performance conveys that Anna is playing with power. She is stubborn, she is determined, she is dying.

When The wonder was reviewed as a novel, several reviewers complained about the revelation at the end of the book justifying Anna’s actions, as too monotonous for an extraordinarily elaborate story. I won’t completely spoil what happens, but it is telling that a common crime against girls could be dismissed as being, in the words of Stephen King, “a little too gothic and a little too convenient.” I guess it’s natural to yearn for a more unusual story: to want to believe in holy magic and mystery rather than mortal suffering and humiliation. But the blessing of The wonder it’s how he recognizes the things we most want to believe and still proposes, in the end, that human acts and faith in others can be the most miraculous things of all.

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