“What makes a mother” is the not entirely original but well-illuminated question that Laura Bispuri puts to herself and the audience at the Berlinale 2018 competition. Her film Daughter of Mine (Figlia mia) opens with nine-year-old redhead Vittoria (Sara Casu) watching a rodeo at a village fair and bumping into 30-something Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) having casual sex with a random man. Soon, Vittoria finds herself torn between two mothers, 40-ish Tina (Valeria Golino), who raised her with love and affection, and Angelica, her neglectful, broken biological mother, who abandoned Vittoria but is starting to embrace the girl — partly instinctively but also to extort money from Tina and her husband.
This is an indisputably Italian film. Tina, a fish factory worker, resembles the glorious Neapolitan Sophia Loren in The River Girl (references to mélo or popular neorealism continuously pop up), and the graceful heroine floats through the shimmering landscape of the enchanted/impoverished Mediterranean island of Sardinia, claiming her place in Daughter of Mine. Men are inconsequential, even Udo Kier in a slightly opaque role as horse trader.
But fear not: this is the kind of loud and proud modern melodrama that people who normally don’t appreciate melodrama can actually come to love. Bispuri and the incredible actresses circle the subject as interesting and ambiguous angels via long shots, “following them around instead of crowding them,” as Bispuri explained at Berlinale. The interdependent trio has to come to terms with lost love, unrequited love, unconditional love. Think The Florida Project with less pink and less fun.
Vittoria beautifully goes from coddled and obedient little girl to curious and self-assertive pre-teen. None of the three females is entirely likable — Tina can come across as frantically and suffocatingly obsessive, Angelica is mostly depraved and utterly self-absorbed, Vittoria is at times too naïve/too defiant — nor are they completely unlikeable, with their emotions and behaviour seesawing as they navigate their evolving interactions.
Bispuri took two years to write and create Daughter of Mine, starting from a gut feeling. “Identity is a strong theme in many of my films.” Rohrwacher added at Berlinale: “In Sworn Virgin, that had a ‘cold’ feel, here it is effusively ‘warm.'”
“This love cannot be touched,” as a raunchy Italo pop song goes while Angelica and Vittoria feel each other out in one of the most beautiful scenes, is a programmatic concept for the relationship between the three, each in their own way a resilient female. At Berlinale, Bispuri answered her own maternal question as befits a satisfying mélo: “Both characters are the girl’s mothers — differently but equally.” Messy and real, touching and convincingly brought to the screen, Daughter of Mine is a joyous, heart and mind-expanding film.
Jutta Brendemuhl (@JuttaBrendemuhl) is an arts writer and programmer (among others) for the Goethe-Institut and the European Union Film Festival Toronto. Jutta has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Robert Rauschenberg, Pina Bausch and other luminaries. When she isn’t sitting in an arthouse cinema in Berlin or Toronto, she might be watching old Die Hard DVDs in her living room. Her writing has appeared in POV, ScreenPrism, DIE ZEIT, German Film @ Canada blog and she’s indexed on IMDB. Jutta holds a master’s degree in English Literature and is a fellow of the Toronto Cultural Leaders Lab.