Something about “The Lost Daughter” – a widely reviewed movie, certainly needing no further commentary – has haunted me for months after the initial viewing. The issue is inherent to the movie, and not only. What I find so compelling I can’t set it aside, is rather meta-filmic. It exceeds the artwork’s borders, soaking its surroundings in strange, fascinating ways.
The movie is entirely filmed on the Greek island of Spetes, where the main character (a British/American teacher/translator) enjoys a brief holiday. The filming location is a change from the original script (which had set the whole story within the US), due to Covid restrictions. It is also, perhaps more importantly, a change from Elena Ferrante’s novel upon which the movie is based. Leda – Ferrante’s protagonist – is Italian and her vacation is spent on the Italian coast. True, the shift from the town of Florence, where she teaches, to the southern beach where she goes sunbathing, brings up subtle yet sharp cultural and social discrepancies, texturing and somehow complicating the plot. But the story occurs within one, if multifaceted, national and linguistic context.
Setting the movie in Greece introduces point blank the concept of foreign, which was not part of the original story. That could be a nice challenge and a stimulating addition. Only, it seems to occur in most casual, most unaware terms. As if it didn’t matter.
Leda in the movie is British, living in the US. She doesn’t speak or understand Greek. She is a translator, yes, but into and from Italian (sticking to the novel, without bothering to alter the tongue of her expertise, was easier I guess. More about this later.) An American man – one of the few characters with whom she interacts – manages the hotel where she rents a room. On the beach, she befriends a young lifeguard, who is Irish and studies in the States. So far, so good.
Two more people complete this intimate chamber piece: a middle-aged pregnant woman and her daughter (a mother as well), met by Leda at the beach, first observed, then acquainted. The two women are crucial to the plot, though they rather function like mirror images, like projections of Leda’s inner world. They speak English (they live in the States) but they are originally from the island, where their family has thrived for several centuries. They have a very thick accent. They speak Greek among them and so do their relatives, whose behavior is so inconsistent with Anglo rules (in terms of politeness, loudness, territory, rights of precedence) it creates constant friction, bringing Leda to the edge of explosion more than once.
Except for the nasty and boisterous beach family, Leda’s interchanges with the locals are minimal, yet consistently negative. One night, at a movie theater, local youths engage in noisy disturbance. They make the viewing impossible, but when Leda asks the theater manager for help, this last clearly colludes with the village youths, ignoring and slighting the visitor. We could ponder the role of this scene, the impact of which isn’t irrelevant, as it shows a quite barbarous attitude as being perfectly “normal.” “That’s the way things are done, here,” both the cashier and youths seem to imply.
Is it an intentional statement? Likely, the episode has no conscious cultural connotation. It is meant to underline Leda’s feeling of alienation/isolation, her unrest, her feeling at odds with whatever surrounds her – her mounting paranoia, as in a following scene she believes the same youth are impeding access to her car, to later figure out she’s mistaken, and the car is their own.
Throughout the entire movie, the “locals” are a vague, disagreeable, undecipherable threat to Leda (and the audience), except as we said for the beach family – of which the bodyguard, during an aside, explicitly says, “they are bad people.” Truly? We wonder how things could get more banal, more blunt.
Perhaps they are bad people, though we don’t see them engaged in criminal activities or hurting anyone. Their badness is quintessentially based on their uncivil, impolite attitudes as seen from the standpoint of the Anglo visitor/tourist/expat – who of course is the measure of what civilization means.
And again, such a roughly sketched contrast between locals and visitors doesn’t seem deliberate. It drops in like an unintended substratum tinting everything, yet supposed to be invisible. After all, filming locations were changed due to accidental causes. No much thought seems to have been given to who is represented and how. All the same, the naïve, black-and-white contrast of good and bad permeates each frame. It adds up, finally leading to a “wait a minute” moment of sheer disbelief.
The careless treatment of the “local” – the unconscious, automated adoption of the most possibly trite colonial clichés – is slightly complicated by another factor, which to me shows an equally superficial approach to cultural identities.
The film follows a dual timeline. Leda’s actual vacation is interspersed with flashbacks of her young self, torn between motherhood duties and a wish for freedom, independence, career pursuits. Young Leda is a promising scholar in the translation field. As we said, she translates into and from Italian. The flashbacks are parsed with poetry passages or just phrases, just words in Italian, often spoken between Leda and her girls – as if sharing a meaningful, secret idiom. In addition, the family once gave shelter to a couple of Italian travelers. During dinner, a weird bond occurs between Leda and the visiting woman. They communicate in Italian, and that seems to stir a profound intimacy, full of powerful undertones.
The use of the Italian language in the many, many flashbacks, is utterly strange. It is like an arrow pointing nowhere, like a map for an inexistent territory. The Italian poetry and quotes of Leda’s early motherhood should connect, of course, to her island vacation. They should trigger her visceral reaction to the mothers and daughters she encounters upon the sunny beach. But these women are Greek. They speak Greek. And she doesn’t, not a single word.
So the Italian tongue lingers in the air like a postiche, like a badly adjusted wig – a loose end, a wire that should plug into the wondrous landscape of Spetes but it can’t, as the prongs are mismatched.
How did this oversight occur? Once again, no much thought has been apparently given to the issue, consistently with the general idea of otherness being a soup, the components of which don’t require to be exactly identified.
I thought someone must have felt the mishandling of place/culture/language in the movie just like I did. So I thoroughly researched reviews in as many languages I could read, to compare different perspectives. That is how I realized that the casualness of the directorial approach spilled upon critical responses. Reviewers are confused, indeed, as per where Leda goes on her vacation, who are the people she meets and what language they speak. Let’s not talk about why. Why there. Many other aspects of the movie are worth discussion, so the logistic/linguistic/ethnic fact can be overlooked.
One reviewer, though, doesn’t leave it out. Writing for a very glamorous magazine, she enters into details while explaining the Italian locale of the movie, “the same slice of Ionian Coast as in Ferrante’s original telling” (1). Leda, the reviewer explains, is “on a working vacation in Italy, the country of her chosen academic discipline,” where “she meets a large family of Italian Americans visiting extended family.” Later, she refers to the family as “the Neapolitans,” or “the Neapolitan clan.”
Of course, we could assume the writer in question didn’t watch the movie, only basing her piece on the original novel. But the article, indeed, is about the differences between Ferrante’s novel and its film adaptation. The reviewer affirms: “Gyllenhaal leaves most of the story’s architecture intact; changing the characters from Italian to American (Colman’s Leda is English but now lives in New England) is perhaps her most significant alteration to the source material.”
Seeing the relevance of the magazine and the peremptoriness of the writer’s tone, I doubted my own perception, went back, verified. No, Madame. “The Lost Daughter” was filmed on a Greek island. Local people speak Greek. They are Greek. There is no “Neapolitan clan” and the pregnant “matriarch” of the clan is Callie, short for Kalista, the beautiful. Can’t do more Greek and less Italian than that.
Is the change insignificant? Is it?
I am not pointing my finger at a distraction that surely bears little weight. I am expressing discomfort about the kind of gaze it betrays – the gaze that both movie and reviewer cast upon those “who aren’t us,” and therefore morph into a shadowy, amorphous blur of which the only salient trait is, no doubt, negativity. Meaning non/identified, non/recognized, nonchalantly ignored. Like a kind of blind spot, and we know – do we – how dangerous they can be, sometimes.
27th April 2022
TOTI O’BRIEN is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. Born in Rome, living in Los Angeles, she is an artist, musician and dancer. She is the author of Other Maidens (BlazeVOX, 2020), An Alphabet of Birds (Moonrise Press, 2020), In Her Terms (Cholla Needles Press, 2021), Pages of a Broken Diary (Psky’s Porch, 2022) and Alter Alter (Elyssar Press, 2022).