Dafne (2019) REVIEW | Berlinale 2019

"Dafne is such a fascinating character....She deserves a more complex film than this."

Dafne movie

A young girl with Down syndrome comes to terms with her mother’s death in the sweet but mostly conflict-free Dafne. While a triumph for representation that boasts fine central performances from Carolina Raspanti as the titular woman and Antonio Piovanelli as her father, their characters are let down by a carefree narrative that doesn’t really bring their issues to a head.

Dafne is on holiday with her family when her mother (Stefania Casini) suddenly dies in an accident. It’s a shocking moment, at odds with the tender summer vibe seen earlier in a nightclub. Dafne is devastated, angrily lashing out at everyone trying to help her. Her father Luigi feels even worse, sinking into a deep depression, unable to conceive of a life without his latest companion for over thirty years. In one harsh moment, he wakes up in the middle of the night and looks at old photos with only a torch, convinced that the walls are shaking. Thankfully for him, Dafne has a novel idea, leading them on a bittersweet journey of self-discovery.

The best thing about Dafne is how the titular character isn’t defined by her disability. For most of the film it’s just another fact of life, like having brown or blonde hair. Her co-workers at the supermarket are supportive of her, and she has the local club where people with Down syndrome can hang out. It’s refreshing to see representation that sees the entire person first and the disability second. Furthermore, the usual roles one sees in cinema are reversed; with the headstrong Dafne tasked with helping her able-bodied dad move on. Taking familiar tropes and flipping them on their head, Dafne is a great example of how to include people with disabilities in a narrative without relying on the usual clichés of suffering.

The only issue is that some of these great representational moments aren’t worked into the plot particularly well. During a ballroom dancing sequence at the club for example, she is asked out by an older man with Down’s to go to a football match. This is never followed up again, making it something of a non-sequitur. Additionally, the second half of the movie, in which they make a long trip back to where the mother is buried, drags on far too long, especially just when the movie should be going for that emotional sweet-spot.

Perhaps this slice-of-life genre can work in a different context. If you are dealing with very real issues such as bereavement — which can turn absolutely everything upside down — this approach gives off the idea that loved ones dying is something that you can just get over. But losing your mother or wife is not exactly the same as breaking up with someone or seeing your pet die, it’s something that alters the very fabric of your life. This gives Dafne an odd, inconsequential edge. Dafne is such a fascinating character, alternating between radiant positivity and understandable anger with ease. She deserves a more complex film than this.

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