A woman with Down syndrome helps her father cope with bereavement in Federico Bondi’s sweet and understated sophomore feature, “Dafne.” Avoiding a saccharine quality thanks to the director’s gift for underplaying each scene, the film is anchored by the eternally forward-looking attitude of Carolina Raspanti in a role guided by her positive though hardly dull-edged personality. Her strength of character and Bondi’s quietly observational approach ensure “Dafne” doesn’t turn into an emotionally manipulative drama about difference, upping its potential as a popular title for global Italian showcases.
It’s the end of summer and Dafne (Raspanti), together with older parents Maria (Stefania Casini) and Luigi (Antonio Piovanelli), are preparing to leave their vacation bungalow when Maria suddenly dies. Dafne’s response is to verbally lash out at this upheaval in her life, while Luigi sinks into an isolating depression. Her coping mechanism is to push ahead and get back to her supermarket job, where the openly expressed affection of friends and colleagues helps her to move on, whereas he’s barely able to muster the energy to reopen his framing business. A weekend father-daughter hike through the Tuscan countryside allows them both to draw strength from the other.
It’s a wisp of a plot, reliant on personalities and Bondi’s ability to economically convey relationships and emotion. A case in point: Toward the start, Maria finds Luigi asleep in a chair in the dark, and she kisses his head. Shortly after, at a dance, they silently look at each other while swaying to the music. Two fleeting moments, and yet they say everything needed about their love, which is why her death has lasting meaning even though she barely says a word in her brief scenes. Luigi’s profound grief is made understandable, especially when one inevitably imagines how he coped with having a daughter with Down syndrome as one-half of a couple, and what it means for him now.
Strong-willed Dafne goes through a different trajectory of mourning, starting off by rejecting anything that interrupts her routine. Ironic, at times snide, she barrels along until that hike, when she intuitively understands that her filial love and projection of strength will help them both move on to the next chapter in their lives together. The final scene finds the perfect bittersweet note to close it all, unexpected in the way it creates a lump in the throat without cheapening the sentiment.
Given the way Bondi (“Black Sea”) has trimmed the story of all fat, it’s surprising he includes a superfluous montage sequence of Dafne and Luigi going about their lives, accompanied by Fred Bongusto’s “Tre settimane da raccontare” — exactly the kind of sugary easy-listening song one continuously hears in this sort of standard-issue filler. It’s the only misstep in an otherwise unforced story, brought alive thanks to Raspanti’s quick-witted, unfiltered character.