Numbered among the new Italo directors to watch for her choice of subject and contemporary approach to character, Wilma Labate has hitherto profiled a girl sea captain in “Ambrogio” and the aftermath of terrorism in “My Generation.” In “Domenica,” the world of childhood and loneliness is touchingly illuminated by the title character, a lively, combative Neapolitan girl without parents. Pic’s minimal action and art-film look has held it back at the Italian box office, but could prove attractive to foreign viewers interested in a thoughtful, well-crafted film offering more than a superficial view of Italy. It’s also one of the first pics in memory to cast an American thesp, Annabella Sciorra, as a local character who blends seamlessly into the story.
It is the last day of work for scruffy, down-at-heel police inspector Sciarra (an unshaven Claudio Amendola): He’s afflicted by a fatal illness that leaves him gasping for breath. His cynical bosses (Valerio Binasco, Peppe Servillo) convince him to carry out a final thankless mission, escorting 12-year-old Domenica (Domenica Giuliano) from the orphanage where she lives to the city morgue, to identify the body of the man who raped her.
The last thing the girl wants to do is view her dead rapist, and Sciarra isn’t delighted, either. But it’s a foregone conclusion that nothing will turn out to be as simple as it seems.
More interesting than the plot twist, however, is the delicately scripted emotional duet between the end-of-the-line cop and the brash waif starving for affection. Labate contrasts their different brands of loneliness: Sciarra’s mistrustful dislike of others versus Domenica’s warm, giving nature, which is exploited by just about everybody.
With his pensively knit brow and long, swinging trench coat, Amendola looks rather sacrificed in the tired cop role, where all the emotion is kept inside. But the skinny, chattering Giuliano shines in an original part she struggles to carve out, sometimes with grating determination. Halfway between child and teenager, she dances to rock music on the street, spreads her legs for little boys to gape, collects money for the nuns in the orphanage and fantasizes about getting married.
Scripters draw her as a survivor in the tradition of Vittorio De Sica’s postwar shoeshine boys. At the same time, incidents like the way she maternally bathes an autistic boy bring out her innate goodness.
As Sciarra’s former lover and informer, Betibu (i.e. Betty Boop), Sciorra is a bright presence whose Neapolitan accent comes as an amusing surprise. Sciarra tries out a variety of roles to connect with Domenica’s budding vitality — as a father, protector, jealous lover and temporary pal. Concluding scenes are unexpectedly moving.
Pic is finely lensed by Alessandro Pesci, whose clean, eye-catching shots communicate a strong sense of cityscape. Contrasting the leads’ slow meandering across the city, editors Enzo Meniconi and Daniel C. Hoffman go for fast and frequent cuts, and Paolino Dalla Porta contributes an animated up-front score.