It has been a little while since the heyday of the Italian island melodrama, since Anna Magnani shaded her eyes from the glare over a darkly sparkling sea, or Ingrid Bergman staggered her stony way up Stromboli. But even back then it would have been rare to come across such a film in which the tempestuous tug-of-love does not involve a man, but a little red-headed girl and the two women she calls “Mamma.” This is Laura Bispuri’s sunswept, emotive, and elemental sophomore film, after her sensitive culture and gender exploration “Sworn Virgin.” And even when it trips up in its later stages, “Daughter of Mine” is a noble rarity, passionately involved in the exploration of oppositional ideas of motherhood not just as an abstract concept, but as a real and vivid, painfully sacrificial thing.
“Wash between your toes, you always let it get so dirty in there,” says Tina (Valeria Golino) to her 10-year-old daughter Vittoria (Sara Casu). But when Vittoria parrots the line to Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) as she soaks the foot she wounded in a hangover-related stumble, Angelica replies airily, “Dirt goes everywhere anyway.” It is a neat summation of the different perspectives of the two women (rather too neat — the use of seemingly casual dialogue to illustrate these contrasts and parallels becomes a little too obvious as the film wears on). The respectable and sensible Tina believes that if you remain vigilant you can manufacture order out of chaos. The debt-ridden, alcoholic Angelica is convinced that chaos will always win, so why bother?
This unusual triangular relationship is the result of an unwritten agreement between the women that began on the night Angelica, the town “party girl” gave birth to Vittoria. Since then, Tina has raised the unwitting child as her own, while she and her husband Umberto (a graceful, deliberately recessive performance from Michele Carboni) have helped to support the dissolute, free-spirited, animal-loving Angelica. But Vittoria is of an age now when not only is she starting to resemble her fair-haired biological mother much more than brunette Tina, she is also learning to recognize her own unhappiness and to look for someone to blame for it. When, Angelica’s debts finally come due on an unpayable scale, Tina becomes paranoid that somehow she will re-stake her claim to her daughter. And, as is so often the way, fearing that eventuality helps bring it about. Vittoria and Angelica meet, and without knowing their real relationship, Vittoria is transfixed by Angelica’s vivacity, her seeming fearlessness.
“Daughter of Mine” unfolds with such a barefoot sense of place that you can almost feel the Sardinian sand between your unwashed toes. Vladan Radovic’s handheld camerawork pops with color and light, and scurries like the wind alongside the characters, who are sometimes suddenly swept up in composer Nando Di Cosimi’s tawngy guitar motif, only for it to cut out just as suddenly at the next scene. But this immediacy does slight battle with the script’s tendency for over-literalization.
In sight of Vittoria, the wayward Angelica throws her shoe at her “little whore” of a dog for getting knocked up by a stray and not the dog whose puppies would have been valuable. Vittoria asks her father whether it’s true that eels swim miles into the ocean to spawn, only to abandon their offspring. And the very day that Angelica’s carelessness finally puts Vittoria in real peril is the same day that Tina organizes a party for her, complete with pink-frosted birthday cake: her heart on a platter. The vibrating vérité of the presentation suggests these moments are random, simply happened-upon, when actually they are obviously carefully premeditated and chosen with a slightly leaden notion of their significance.
Still, those excesses are constantly reined in by a trio of terrific performances. Rohrwacher, in her second riveting role for Bispuri after “Sworn Virgin,” is a force of sea-salted, scudding-cloud, screwed-up nature, whether messily demanding another drink from her fellow barflies or dancing joyfully as the car radio belts out Gianni Bella’s disco-pop hit “Questo Amore Non Si Tocca.” Golino, playing the straighter role, is more quietly impressive, as the strained, level-headed, but ferociously loving Tina. And newcomer Sara Casu is so good as Vittoria, she becomes not just the passive bone of contention between the two adults, but an idiosyncratic, watchful presence of her own.
Too often we let the word “mother” subsume the entire identity of any woman who bears it. But however overdetermined “Daughter of Mine” may become, it is valuable for acknowledging and caring for the women inside that freighted term. Every mother is a person first, and between these three fine actresses and the restive camera, that is the truth that shines through all the film’s contrivances, like sunlight blown through tangles of hair.