'Daughter of Mine' ('Figlia mia'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Engrossing acting rescues an uneven story.

A young girl is torn between her good mom, Valeria Golino, and bad birth mother, Alba Rohrwacher, in Laura Bispuri’s drama.

Daughter of Mine (Figlia mia) marks the second feature and second Berlin competition slot for Italian director Laura Bispuri, whose offbeat gender-bender tale, Sworn Virgin, brought her international acclaim in 2015. Her new film shows growing confidence with actors and staging, and even has a little more bite, but its more conventional storyline is a progressive turnoff as it devolves into the obvious, particularly in the closing scenes. On the plus side, the Match Factory release can bank on two top-drawer actresses squaring off in the opposing roles of positive (Valeria Golino) and negative (Alba Rohrwacher) maternal figures, in a film that seems aimed squarely at the female demographic.

When rural Sardinian girl Vittoria (the poised Sara Casu) learns that her doting, overprotective mom is not her birth mother, it sparks a psycho-drama that is easily imaginable – too easily, in fact. Bispuri’s screenplay, co-written with Francesca Manieri, deals its cards slowly and with plenty of explanation, and most viewers will be several steps ahead of narrative developments.

The tense triangle among the girl and her two moms unfolds against an interesting backdrop: a stark setting in rural Sardinia, where tall cliffs and dirt roads criss-cross a shrub-infested desert. Its general wildness is underlined in the first scene at a local bronco-busting rodeo. Vittoria, who is about to turn 10, is a thin, pale redheaded child, and she bears a striking resemblance to a skinny young woman in a tight blue dress who is getting it on with a cowboy behind a fence. This is Angelica (Rohrwacher) and the first impression is that the girl has just stumbled across her mother in a very compromising position. But then she turns around and runs to the arms of the dark-haired Mediterranean Tina (Golino) for protection, calling her “mama.”

Although Tina and her warmhearted, working-class husband, Umberto, are raising Vittoria, they apparently never officially adopted her. This puts them in a dicey position with Angelica, the town drunkard and floozy, who gave them her baby at birth. Tina buys this “lost soul” groceries and performs services for her, like shoveling manure in the barnyard in front of Angelica’s farmhouse.  

Faced with eviction from the farm for nonpayment of taxes, Angelica asks to see her daughter before she leaves town. Not a good move: The sheltered Vittoria remains fascinated by the breezy, foul-mouthed young woman who looks so much like her, and a secret relationship buds between them that threatens Tina’s bond with her daughter.

Society is largely absent or at least nonjudgmental of this odd family, which seems unlikely in such a small, isolated community. Maybe it’s tradition for them to mind their own business, but doesn’t anyone guess whose daughter Vittoria is? And what to say of the customers in a smoke-filled local bar, all macho types, who ignore the falling-down-drunk Angelica soliciting sex, but also fail to react to the church-going Tina when she pops by?

So the Vittoria-Tina-Angelica triangle pretty much takes place on an empty playing field. Angelica, the dark angel, draws the naïve child ever closer to danger, first commanding her to follow her over some sheer cliffs as she totters in the wind, then pushing her into a deep pool of water, and finally ordering her to climb into a tight hole in the ground in search of hidden treasure. One expects the drama to peak here, but Bispuri steps on the brakes at the last minute. 

Golino, who gave one of her most memorable performances playing an island woman in Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro, is relaxed and natural in the first part of the film, the perfect mother. It comes as a surprise to learn she ignores her patient husband and sleeps in her daughter’s room, instead. Her nervous anxiety grows along with the rift with Vittoria, but she never emotionally over-reaches this nuanced character.

Rohrwacher’s Angelica is a much flashier role and she rises to the occasion with very physical acting, often wearing little but slovenly underwear. From a tramp searching for love in all the wrong places, she turns into a convincing evil witch, then effortlessly back to a needy neighbor.

Camerawork by D.P. Vladan Radovic, who also shot Sworn Virgin, makes the most of sun-baked landscapes casting harsh shadows. Nando Di Cosimo’s lively, emotive musical score has a strong local flavor and is played loudly enough to wake the dead in the desert.

Production companies: Vivo Film, Colorado Film in association with RAI Cinema, Match Factory Productions, Bord Cadre Films
Cast: Valeria Golino, Alba Rohrwacher, Sara Casu, Michele Carboni, Udo Kier
Director: Laura Bispuri
Screenwriters: Francesca Manieri, Laura Bispuri
Producers: Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa, Maurizio Totti, Alessandro Usai, Michael Weber, Viola Fugen, Dan Wechsler
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Ilaria Sadun
Costume designer: Antonella Cannarozzi
Editor: Carlotta Cristiani
Music: Nando Di Cosimo
World sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
96 minutes