From Mother to Daughter (2008) dir. Andrea Zambelli
“From Mother to Daughter” is a deceptively simple, but wholly satisfying documentary. A reunion of elderly Italian rice field workers rekindles their love of song, which turns into a legitimate traveling music chorus band spreading their history, culture and love of song to youth around the world.
The opening introduces us to a group of Italian labourers known as the ‘Mondine’ – young women who, from the 1940’s - 1970’s, worked arduously as rice weeders for local Italian farmers. Archival footage is intercut with a reunion of these elderly but spry ladies decades after they last saw these rice fields. There’s little conflict or drama in the reunion, but it’s an interesting history lesson into the turbulent post-war, post-fascist period when socialist values flourished.
During their reunion the ladies often break out into song, their traditional labour folk tunes which helped them get through their long days on the rice fields. The harmonies and passion for the music is infectious every time they sing. It’s a marvel in fact. And so as the film moves along, the story becomes less about the reunion and more about the formation of a music chorus group centered around these fabulous songs. We see the ladies perform in various venues and events to large crowds. They even join up with an eclectic pop group and become a nationally sought-after musical sensation.
The title, “From Mother to Daughter” can seem a misnomer. It’s not so much about daughters and mothers, as about family and the relationship of youth to the elderly. Zambelli is careful to show the spectators during the many song sequences. They are all young people, more than half the age of the singers. Of course, youngsters are always taught to respect one’s elders, and the Italian youth treat the chorus with reverence and near idolization.
When the ladies are not in song, their stories and joie de vivre is interminably interesting. Italian is a lyrical language, the cadence of its speech patterns can be oddly hypnotic. And listening to a dozen elder women chattering in their native working class tongue becomes a harmonious song in it’s own right.
Zambelli uses uncomplicated and traditional cinema verite style to tell his story. Other than the occasional intertitles to identify a location there is no one other than the characters telling us what’s going on – no narrator, preamble, or on camera documentarian. Style is put on the shelf in order to showcase, unencumbered, the raw power of the beautiful songs sung by the passionate ladies of the Mondine.
In working class societies in any culture there’s always been an association of song and work. For example, another great documentary, “Men of the Deeps”, tells a similar story of a Canadian miner chorus group. The most touching scene in "From Mother to Daughster" is when the ladies journey to America. They land in Detroit to play a cultural exchange concert. They couldn’t be more out of place. Yet, during a boring ol’ ferry ride across the river they treat the English-speaking and normally zoned out American ferry-riders to an impromptu concert. The reactions and reverence of those urban Americans to their performance transcended nationality, race, culture and language. “From Mother to Daughter” is a special film. Enjoy.