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In Laura Bispuri’s new movie premiered at Tribeca, Daughter of Mine, two powerful women feud for the right of motherhood.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between European and American filmmaking – a large but by no means conclusive distinction in the world of cinema – particularly as the best and brightest new directors begin making their premieres at Tribeca Film Festival this year.
The old formulation largely had it that movies were art in that hemisphere and business in this one, a point largely made moot with the rise of American independent cinema and the continuing reappraisal of old studio hands as auteurs. But to simply describe such an idea as that, we still need to borrow language from our friends in France, who consider films by their author to the extent that we know them by their budget. Being that we’re even now in the half-steps of progress, I’ll offer a new formulation about this continental difference: In Europe, films remind you that you’re watching them.
I found this increasingly true during the screening of Italian director Laura Bispuri’s second feature, Figlia Mia (Daughter of Mine) at Tribeca this year.
SYNOPSYS: 10-year-old Vittoria’s summer will be one of two mothers to challenge, to hate, to love and to forgive. Shy Vittoria has a close relationship with her loving good mother Tina. But their quiet Sardinian life will be upset when the young girl discovers that local party girl Angelica is her birth mother. When Angelica is forced to move away because of financial troubles, she asks to become acquainted with Vittoria. Tina agrees, comforted by the idea that the woman will soon be leaving town. Searching for something deep and inexplicable, Vittoria and Angelica spend more and more time together against Tina’s will …
The story is of two semi-legitimate mothers – adoptive, upstanding Tina (Valeria Golino) and biological, imploding Angelica (played superbly by Alba Rohrwacher) – as they fight for entitlement over Vittoria (Sara Casu), their daughter more and less. Both houses and homes are at stake. The film appeared in Official Selection at the 68th Berlinale this past February and comes to Tribeca now as one of the strongest foreign language contestants I’ve yet seen.
This is largely thanks to Bispuri’s directing process, which is remarkably mature and adept given this is only her second feature. Her previous film, Sworn Virgin (also starring Rohrwacher), won Tribeca’s Nora Ephron Prize for outstanding writing or directing by a woman, in 2015.
Her new film finds Bispuri honing her voice and particularly her use of the camera. Daughter of Mine wanders through the badlands and bays of southern Italy, weaving an open and intimate story largely in its use of long handheld shots and abrupt cuts.
Precisely edited, her discontinuous style is clear without becoming obvious. Simple digressions of the film, such as Vittoria’s trip across the hills to visit her estranged mother Angelica, become mystifying journeys, both unified and fractured.
Laura Bispuri’s new film, draws as much inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s content as she found in Michael Haneke’s form.
Daughter of Mine opens at what appears to be a Calabrian rodeo, as Vittoria wanders through the crowd of towering adults and stumbles upon Angelica, whose relationship is still unbeknownst to both of them, with a man behind the stables.
She runs back to her mother, Tina, who hugs her close in the concession line. In a single shot, the two sides of a harrowing feud are established. We soon learn that Tina has been taking care of her old friend, bringing food and provisions up to a rural and squalid farmhouse where most of the story takes place. On the bed of a fly swatter, in the half-light, Angelica lifts up a bill for what can only be credit card charges: “Have you got 28,733 euros and seventeen cents?” she asks.
Angelica’s debt is the real impetus for the story, but it clashes prolifically with the first signs of Vittoria’s puberty. In the non-expository presence of the camera, these two incidents seem merely to collide on their own, making a perfect storm particularly for Tina, the ever-loving helicopter parent who offers everything for Vittoria’s increasingly awkward well-being. She works gutting fish with her husband, of sorts, and while she’s away at work, her adopted daughter begins making pilgrimages to the dilapidated farm. Angelica, without clearing up the issue of her biology, begins offering lessons in womanhood.
In a single shot, the two sides of a harrowing feud are established.
Up until this point, Daughter of Mine was highly reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film The Silence, where two women fight for the favor of the child they travel with.
Bergman’s film is famous for its extreme interiority and seems to offer endless conclusions when such a previously underrepresented relationship of feminine rivalry is left in ambiguity. Bispuri’s new film, while clearly drawing as much inspiration from Bergman in content as she found in Michael Haneke’s form, departs dramatically when sex and sexuality become implemented in the competition for motherhood. Angelica, who affords to get drunk largely off turning tricks, is held up as a sign of wretchedness by Tina – who at one melodramatic point literally drags her little girl to a back room where she finds her birth mother offering oral sex – a powerful lesson on the presence of the double standard. The tension begins to rupture Vittoria’s home life, and she finds Angelica both liberated in the world and trapped by it, in seemingly endless cycles. Suddenly, the question of nature versus nurture is at play.
This drama is not so much resolved as it is articulated, and by the end of the film, we only arrive at a greater understanding of these women as metaphors for Woman. This is compounded with the narrative’s clearly allegorical use of “the void” as a concept of mystified femininity – in the story, it is an extremely thin hole in a necropolis where gold is supposedly hidden, and Angelica brings her daughter to it. Overall, the effect is touching but not especially subtle, and the script seems more to exhaust itself than really take us anywhere. But that’s the other beauty of European cinema – it leaves it up to us to make sense of it all.
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