The Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is best known for sweet, touching art house-friendly movies that send people away feeling gooey and cuddly. It's awfully tough to be a human being and resist his delightful Oscar-winning hit Cinema Paradiso (released in 1990). His film Malena (2000) had more detractors, but I found its images of a beautiful woman walking through the streets (with every eye following her every move) quite powerful and affecting. He once even made a movie with the life-affirming title Everybody's Fine. So when I sat down to Tornatore's new film, The Unknown Woman (his first since Malena), I was ready to be charmed. Instead, the film that actually unfurled was a restless, panicked, devastating emotional roller coaster, meticulously planned and executed like a razor.
Thinking back, I realized that there was more to Tornatore than his reputation suggests. In 2002, Miramax released the much longer director's cut of Cinema Paradiso with its rating tellingly changed from a PG to an R. A few years ago I tracked down an imported DVD of the director's cut of Malena, which was also considerably darker and more pointed; the Weinsteins were really the ones responsible for the softness of those films. I also remembered a movie called A Pure Formality (1994) about a police investigator (Roman Polanski) questioning a mystery man (Gerard Depardieu) found stumbling along the road; most of the film takes place in a damp, sinister police station with flashbacks to what might have happened previously. That tone gets closer to what's going on in The Unknown Woman, which starts with a knockout centerpiece performance by Kseniya Rappoport.
She plays a woman called Irena, who comes to Italy from the Ukraine looking for work. By paying a concierge part of her salary, she gets a job cleaning an affluent apartment building. She befriends Gina (Piera Degli Esposti), a nanny for an upper-crust couple, Valeria (Claudia Gerini) and Donato Adacher (Pierfrancesco Favino), and their daughter Thea (Clara Dossena). Irena deliberately trips Gina on the long stairwell and takes over Gina's job. She tries to win over Thea while casing the apartment, looking for access to the family safe. Very often, Irena suffers uncomfortable flashbacks to her terrible past, serving a pimp-like thug called "Mold" (Michele Placido) and attempting to break away from him when she falls in love with one of her johns. Tornatore reveals more and more details as the film goes on. In one flashback Irena digs through the filth in a city dump. What's she looking for? I had a guess, but I was wrong.
Tornatore begins his film with what looks like an outtake from Eyes Wide Shut, with masked, naked women posing for some unseen voyeur. After several candidates are surveyed, Irena is chosen, which is presumably the beginning of all her trouble. Critics who saw only the Miramax-ed Malena accused Tornatore of ogling beautiful women with no other purpose in mind, and this opening shot may bring up the same accusations again. But here, as with Malena, the focus remains on the women, not on the voyeurs. We follow the masked Irena out of the scene and watch her as she removes her mask, her eyes defiant and determined. In the flashbacks, she is a dirty blonde, very often victimized, pleading, submitted to rape and other forms of torture. The new Irena, 32, with a mound of tightly curled black hair, is not so easy to catch off guard. She was once beautiful, but her face has now weathered through pain and hard-earned wisdom.
The Italy we see here is covered with graffiti and no place appears to be safe or comfortable. Irena's apartment is ransacked (someone is looking for money) and left in a complete shambles throughout the film. Tornatore shoots low so that we can see the ceiling boards torn asunder. In another scene, a driving lesson occurs at night, with large numbers of pedestrians walking around the car in the half-light, while poor Irena suffers jarring flashbacks while trying to keep her eyes on the road. Tornatore's camera is constantly pacing and roaming, as if filled with pent-up energy and finding no place to spend it. Miraculously, he avoids the typical hand-held, shaky approach, which, these days, is used to signify chaos. Editor Massimo Quaglia keeps up with this restlessness perfectly, never disrupting it or breaking the flow, and legendary composer Ennio Morricone provides another effective, unobtrusive score.Even Irena's relationship with little Thea is fraught with disaster. Thea suffers from a condition that prevents her from protecting herself when she falls; the natural reflex to put out her hands is missing. So Thea's every move comes with a dreadful anticipation and more than once she turns up bloodied and crying. Irena tries to train her by binding her hands, pushing her down on pillows and forcing her to get up again. How this was supposed to work I have no idea, and indeed, there is more than one logic-challenged scene in the movie, but like the violent crime ("giallo") films of his countrymen Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Tornatore's The Unknown Woman gets by on sheer guts and style.