There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment towards the end of Laura Bispuri’s raw and arresting “Daughter of Mine” when a distraught Sardinian mother named Tina (“Hot Shots! Part Deux” star Valeria Golino) desperately tries to flag down a sunbathing teenager. “Have you seen a little girl with red hair?” she asks in a panic, but the stranger doesn’t speak a word of Italian — she’s just a tourist in a bikini. Tina drives off, frustrated and frantic, her tires kicking up the ancient Mediterranean dirt.
It’s the first and only time in this tempestuous drama that the world outside of the island is anything more than an abstract idea, a cloud that might not come your way, a mild itch that doesn’t asked to be scratched. Bispuri presents Sardinia as a rugged and primordial place where the houses are built out of cinder blocks and the catacombs ensure that even the dead never have to leave, but Tina knows that it won’t be that way forever. It’s not even necessarily that her home is opening up or being gentrified by foreign money, just that she’s being forced to confront the fact that you don’t own the thing you love most, the thing that makes you who you are. You just have to hope that whatever it is — be it a place or a person — has been given the strength that it needs to survive on its own.
Losing her sense of Sardinia, of course, is hardly the most pressing of Tina’s concerns. Not when her daughter is at risk of growing up, slipping away, and becoming who’s always really been. A few weeks shy of her 10th birthday, Vittoria (Sara Casu) is a twig of a girl whose flustered red hair is like a homing beacon against the blue waters. She doesn’t look a thing like her mother, and she’s almost old enough to start asking why. It’s imminent.
A chance encounter with Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), the local “party girl,” sparks a flurry of silent questions; something about seeing the blonde and blotto thirtysomething getting felt up at a rodeo makes Vittoria wonder. Tina makes anxious note of this development, but she couldn’t be more delighted to learn that Angelica is being evicted from her farm and planning to move to the mainland. Maybe if the feral village floozy goes away, Tina would finally be freed from the fear that she’s raising Vittoria on loan; that her daughter will be reclaimed from her at any moment. But it won’t be so easy, especially now that Angelica’s sudden interest in the child has set the stage for a primal tug-of-war between nature and nurture that threatens to rip Vittoria apart.
Shot with an artful intimacy that feels both posed and naturalistic in equal measure, “Daughter of Mine” is gripping from the very first scene, as gifted cinematographer Vladan Radovic immediately conflates these characters with their terrain, infusing the handheld reactiveness of a Dardenne brothers’ movie with the windswept gusto of the Italian New Wave. Angelica isn’t just the salt of the earth, she’s the mud and the soil and the damaged fruit that falls from the trees. “I’m like the earth when it rains,” she barks at someone who dares to provoke her. “The closer you get, the further you sink.”
Rohrwacher is a force of nature in the role, a walking disaster who can barely take care of herself, let alone any of the mangy animals who wander around her property (the very pregnant dog is a highlight). Sultry and rank all at once, she’s like a castaway on a sinking island, and Violetta is the only person in all of Sardinia who hasn’t yet learned that Angelica would rather be offered a free drink than a lifejacket. The scenes between the young girl and the woman who once gave her away are so ineffably maternal that it stings whenever we’re reminded of Angelica’s ulterior motive (a desperate plan that isn’t worth getting into here, in large part because it’s hard to gauge how serious she is about it). Angelica has finally found someone who reminds her of herself, who likes her hoop earrings and doesn’t mind getting dirt between her toes. It’s a knowing celebration of the unconditional love that comes with parenthood, at least for a time.
On the other side of the coin, Tina and Vittoria could hardly be more different. A disciplined factory worker who’s spent the better part of a decade trying to repair her relationship with her admonished husband (a man whose role in Vittoria’s birth is both obvious and not), Tina has been curdled by a mother’s love and cut on both sides. She’s put every fiber of her being into raising Vittoria, but her sincere concern for the girl has inevitably assumed an aspect of self-interest; all parents have to accept that they don’t have full control over who their kids become, but few share Tina’s worry that her kid will become someone else’s.
Golino’s performance is fascinating for how openly she struggles with the ire she has for Angelica, and also how she uses her as a surrogate for the frustrations that ought to be directed elsewhere (“you tore my heart out and gave it to the bitch” she snaps at her husband in an uncharacteristic fit). Tina is old news to Vittoria, not nearly as exciting for her as the wild new woman who blows men for spare change at the local bar and isn’t afraid of anything. The topography of the triangle that forms between them is intricate and mottled and prone to rockslides, often accompanied by sudden blasts of music that are muted just as fast as they materialized in the first place.
While some of Bispuri’s scripting can be a bit too pointed for a story that traffics in such elemental textures (a brief flashback scene is particularly ill-advised), the film renders each of Vittoria’s mothers with such riveting and unvarnished empathy that you hardly even notice how their daughter is growing up before your eyes, stronger than the both of them.
“Daughter of Mine” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.