One day at the rodeo, the nine year old Vittoria (Sara Casu) accidentally walks in on a woman having sex with a random stranger. Little does she know that this woman is actually her mother, Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), who is also severely in debt.
When Angelica gave birth to Vittoria, she was given to Tina (Valeria Golino), a far more responsible woman who is unable to bear children herself. Sensing a strong connection, Vittoria grows attached to Angelica, and soon, much to the consternation of her mother, the real threat lurks that she might find out the truth.
This set up, which is slowly revealed over the first third of the movie, lays the groundwork for the rest of the piece — a reasonably dramatic movie that relies more on mood than exposition. While engaging in places, it is torn between the requirements of the wrong-mother genre and the arthouse film, lacking any final punch to make it a true masterpiece.
The themes of the movie are innately connected to the setting. The island of Sardinia is used to great effect, the scorching hot plains doing a lot of the heavy dramatic lifting. Cut off from the mainland, the island is depicted as a place left behind by the rest of Italy, making the contemporary movie feel like it could have been shot any time in the past twenty years.
The complex and pain-ridden character of Angelica feels emblematic of this land, her troubles a result of being cast away by a mostly patriarchal society. Conversely, Tina is more of a stereotypical Italian mother, doing everything she can to provide for her child. Valeria Golino excels in the performance, giving a passionate performance that conveys the deep love she has for her adopted daughter.
As for the little girl herself, we are given little insight into how she really feels about all of this. Her childlike perspective means that she doesn’t quite understand the bad things that her mother does to herself, making her attachment to her feel all the more tragic.
Director Laura Bispuri films with a great affection for the little girl, contrasting her blank and innocent stare with the sordidness of the surrounding world. Living her whole life thinking that Tina is her mother, she soon connects on a deeper level with the seemingly carefree Angelica, who enjoys walking along the cliffs and singing along to classic Italian pop. But this life can be dangerous for such a young girl, leading Tina to take some drastic actions, making the viewer consider whether the roles will be reversed.
The ending is a very smart and unexpected one, Bispuri using this set up to create a morally complex and deeply ambiguous story. There is a great potential for dramatic conflict here, but nonetheless, it never quite raises the stakes to keep us involved.
The coming-of-age tale, which often sees young children yearning to explore themselves away from the auspices of their parents, is raised to another, far more ironic level, as that freedom is granted by a woman who actually is her mother. It asks whether motherhood is something that someone is granted automatically (Angelica) or is something that must be earned (Tina). In Freudian terms, the dynamic is between the mother and the whore, except this time the mother is barren and the whore is the actual mother.
Here Laura Bispuri has made a complicated tale about femininity and motherhood, which although leaves viewers with a lot to ponder, still doesn’t do enough to keep us engaged. All the fantastic themes are there, but the execution remains wanting.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Redmond Bacon is a professional film writer and amateur musician from London. Currently based in Berlin (Brexit), most of his waking hours are spent around either watching, discussing, or thinking about movies. Sometimes he reads a book.