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In the 1940s Italians perfected drama onscreen with movies like Bicycle Thieves and Rome: Open City. These were part of the neo-realist movement, a wave of films shot on location, featuring social commentary, wrestling with human dilemmas and utilising non-professional actors. Cut forward eighty years and directors are still drawing from this playbook as evident from Laura Bispuri’s Figlia Mia (Daughter of Mine in English).
Sara Casu stars in her first on-screen as Vittoria, a pre-teen girl living in a poor rural part of Sardinia. She is raised by loving working-class parents, Tina (Rain Man’s Valeria Golino) and Umberto (Michele Carboni). However, with her striking red-hair, she bears little resemblance to them.
Also in the area is alcoholic Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, a dead ringer for Andrea Riseborough), a woman a month away from being evicted from her house on account of problems with the taxman. It turns out she is Vittoria’s birth mom who traded her to Tina for money and support. About to leave the impoverished town, she asks Tina if she can meet her daughter once. However, right away Angelica and Vittoria hit it off, with the child beginning to visit her birth mother secretly.
Daughter of Mine, like the best neo-realist films, is a realistic and deeply humanist story. There are no villains. Nothing is clean cut. In a typical Hollywood movie, Angelica and Tina would be portrayed as black and white characters simply representing good and bad. However, Bispuri and co-writer Francesca Manieri’s script, never judges. While Angelica is a mess and often behaves recklessly, she feels well-rounded. The film drops hints of some unresolved trauma which has led to her drink, seducing men in the local bar for shots.
What’s more impressive is that the writers take time to explore why Vittoria drifts more towards Angelica. While Tina is a seen as a very loving mother, she works two jobs – causing her to be uptight and often not present for her child – leaving her for long stretches of the day alone. In this portion of the drama, Bispuri captures through muscular one-takes – often following characters gutting fish and training horses for rodeo, as well as shooting the lame ones for meat (hello, Udo Kier) – the low quality of life in certain areas of Italy’s Mezzogiorno region.
On the other hand, Angelica is fun, brightening up Vittoria’s day, telling her sweary jokes, trying jewellery on her and bringing her along on hare brained schemes. While a totally irresponsible mother – when asked for a drink by Vittoria, Angelica hands her medicine for a hangover – she acts more as a friend to her biological daughter. On top of this, Vittoria – looking so distinct from anyone else in the village – is drawn to someone of similarly unusual features.
The film takes its time, establishing the characters and their surroundings before building to a tense final act. That said, things never spill over to melodrama, eschewing tying the story up in a neat little bow. Instead, Bispuri pulls out a dynamic, gorgeous final shot which leaves certain plot details ambiguous but completes the central character’s arc in an evocatively perfect way.