The Beautiful, Deadly Hunger of ‘The Wonder’

In a 2004 article, the late author Hilary Mantel discussed the story of 19th-century Italian mystic Gemma Galgani, who refused to eat and inflicted wounds on her hands and feet that she claimed were stigmata; she was a sewing needle—and she believed that periods of intense physical suffering could atone for all sins committed by the priests. Even though we no longer approve of such behavior as spiritual devotions, Mantel writes, there is something frustratingly timeless about young women who “starve and purge themselves and … pierce and cut their flesh.” Galgani was canonized as a saint in 1940. While he adored her, few realized that she feared doctors, hated being examined, and once wrote about a maid who “takes me to a closed room and robs”. Maybe it’s easier to believe in miracles than to reckon with the pain of a girl someone traditionally hurt.

The question of what people believe and what they do not believe, FantasticNew Netflix adaptation based on a 2016 novel by Emma Donoghue. Set in Ireland in 1862, shortly after the Great Famine killed nearly 1 million people, the film begins with English nurse Lib (played by Florence Pugh) traveling to a rural part of the country for an unusual commission. Lib was hired to keep an eye on an 11-year-old girl, whom some locals believe to be a living miracle: She’s been healthy and seemingly without food for several months. “She’s a gem,” a visitor respectfully offers the girl’s family money. “A great one.”

Lib is a northerner, a fierce pragmatist determined to dissipate this mystical nonsense. However, during his first examination, he is almost instantly overpowered by a girl named Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), who looks at Lib with a partly sullen, partly blessed composure. “I don’t need to eat,” Anna says. “I live with man. From Heaven.” The village elders want to use Anna to their advantage: the Doctor (Toby Jones) sees her as a scientific discovery under construction, a girl who can live like a plant in air, water, and sunlight; a landlord (Brían F. O’Byrne) imagines him as “our first saint since the dark ages.” Will Byrne (Tom Burke), a journalist sent to investigate the situation, proclaims that Anna and her family are swindlers and deceiving naive Catholics for profit. In one scene, director Sebastián Leilo projecting Anna’s reclining silhouette into the dark hills of the Irish landscape, making her physical body a backdrop for everyone else’s creative theories.

The sky is full of rain and pathetic delusions; Rarely does a film feel this cold, this moist to the touch. Hunger is the narrative canvas and landscape—not just Anna’s, but everyone’s. Lib ate before and after his hour, with terrible efficiency; The innkeeper’s four daughters stare at him in silence, heaping the food on his fork with something like resentment. It is revealed that Will has lost his entire family to famine; instead of enduring the dishonor of falling and dying on the street, they nailed the door of their house. Lib finds Anna’s prolonged fasting difficult to resolve: She seems healthy enough at first, but soon begins to deteriorate under Lib’s strict watch. “He’s dying,” Lib told Anna’s mother angrily. “HE selectedAnna’s mother (Elaine Cassidy) resolutely responds in her belief that heaven and hell are eternal, although life is brutal and short. Everyone but Lib and Will seem strangely numb to the slow death of a child. They are more inclined to fawn over his discipline and admire the divine spectacle of self-destruction.


As Mantel’s article points out, this show is nothing new. Donoghue writes that she bases her book on “almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls,” that is, young women around the world who are famous for surviving without food. But Anna most closely resembles Sarah Jacob, a Welsh girl in the mid-19th century who claimed to have lived without food since she was 10 years old, but died after her fast was placed under strict medical supervision. anorexia mirabilisThe refusal to eat for spiritual reasons is as ubiquitous throughout human history as the plague and lice.

Girls have always tried to make themselves smaller for reasons they can’t explain. But the modern context fills in the gaps. Putting yourself in a secondary state of amenorrhea (a person’s cessation of menstruation) is a way to avoid fertility, unwanted marriage, or male desire. (Legend has it that Columba, an Italian nun from Rieti, was once stripped naked by a group of men, and they stepped back when they saw the scars of her self-inflicted wounds.) And not eating is an act of defiance—as every toddler’s parent knows. This is a stance that girls are seldom allowed in. FantasticFortunately, she resists dwelling on Anna’s physical shrinkage as the film progresses (the book is more explicit on that front), but Cassidy’s composed performance conveys that Anna plays with power. Stubborn, determined, dying.

When? Fantastic reviewed as a novel, several critics complained about the revelation that justified Anna’s actions at the end of the book, as if it were too boring for an otherwise extraordinarily crafted story. I’m not going to totally screw up what happened, but it describes how a common crime against girls can be dismissed for being, in Stephen King’s words, “a little too gothic and a little too appropriate.” I think it’s natural to yearn for a more extraordinary story, to want to believe in divine magic and mystery, not mortal suffering and humiliation. But blessing Fantastic is that we accept the things we most want to believe and in the end still propose that human actions and belief in others can be the most miraculous things.

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