Berlinale Review: Figlia Mia (Laura Bispuri)

In the Italian language, meaning shifts dramatically when you change the order of the words in an expression such as ‘my daughter’. ‘Mia figlia’ is merely stating a fact, but turn it into ‘figlia mia’ and description suddenly explodes into a cry of possession, used exclusively to emphasize pride, sorrow, or rage. It’s a subtle enough distinction on paper, and one which the English translation cannot capture; more importantly, it’s a semantic space that Figlia Mia claims as its own sacred ground in telling the story of a child and of the two mothers silently battling for her soul in a Sardinian village.

Back at the Berlinale after her 2015 debut Sworn Virgin, director Laura Bispuri retains the trademark blend of ethnographic study and woman-centric naturalism that worked so well the first time around. Ten-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu) is coming of age in a lethargic Sardinian town, and while starting to question her entire relationship with her protective mother Tina (Valeria Golino) she feels drawn to Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), an enigmatic woman living on the outskirts of town. Red hair is not the only thing the two have in common, and such a blossoming, inexorable realization haunts Tina just as much as it intrigues Vittoria.

Angelica is the hard-drinking, volatile wild card in this triangle, possessed with hostile abandonment and hypnotic vitality. The life she’s precariously built in town is tearing at the seams and so, in turn, is the deal she struck with Tina a decade earlier for the custody of Vittoria.

With a one-way ticket ‘for the continent’ being touted as the best solution for everyone involved, Rohrwacher’s character can’t fully articulate why she decides to stay, but it’s electrifying to watch the process unfold on screen. “Ci siamo dati un bacio, e ancora non si stacca” goes the voice of Gianni Bella while Angelica and Vittoria dance in one of their most striking scenes together; and it truly feels like the unexpected kiss they shared is still keeping them glued to each other beyond any expectations.

That same scene is the one I’d put next to any clip from Sworn Virgin and show them to people who inexplicably refuse to give Rohrwacher her due. Playing essentially opposite characters, her emotional control and different takes on womanhood fully support her claim as the best Italian actress of her generation. Not many directors know what to do with her talent, and Bispuri is clearly showing them the way here.

Credit must also go to Figlia Mia’s nimble, clever script penned by Francesca Manieri, who’s done interesting things in Italian genre cinema for years now, and who reteams with Bispuri after her key contribution to another impressive debut from last year – Valentina Pedicini’s Where Shadows Fall. The story returns again and again to a lexicon of womanhood that is often menacingly imposed on poor Vittoria. ‘Miss’, ‘lady’, ‘mum’, ‘slut’ and even the basic ‘female’ are some of the terms she’s presented with, sometimes playfully, and sometimes as a strident invitation to try them on for size.

The film is at its best when it lets this through-line emerge organically, an undercurrent easily noticeable beneath the strong performances and visual flair. (Valeria Golino is as good as Rohrwacher, perhaps better, considering the emotional digging she has to do is completely on the inside.) Bispuri likes to link the three main characters via the same handheld tracking shot to underline the peak of their respective arcs, while Vladan Radovic’s cinematography projects long shadows and coarse streaks of light onto the Sardinian landscape.

Although the color coding is effective in separating Tina’s predominantly blue costumes from the pink/orange that bring Vittoria and Angelica closer to each other and to the reddish sand of the hills, the symbolism can become overwhelming at the story’s climax, with its unnecessary allegory of rebirth. Bispuri’s cinema has so far stood out for a certain elemental rigorousness and simplicity, and it’s in that vein that she’ll continue to shine.