Subscribe to our update feeds:
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
"The Unknown Woman" (aka, "La Sconosciuta")
Made in 2006, this exquisite mystery thriller appeared at the Rome film Festival in October of that year and, since, has been shown throughout Europe and Russia. It hasn't yet had distribution in the U.S., but has been chosen as the official Italian entry for the Academy's Best Foreign Language Film award. After having seen it, I have serious doubts that anything can top this stunning grabber of a mystery thriller.
Nor does it hurt that it's the work of Giuseppe Tornatore, a proven master of cinema arts with such a creative pedigree as "Cinema Paradiso" and "Malena." Obviously not confined to single genre, the auteur enters the realm of the mystery thriller with a tour d'force that destines this film for the highest praise and deserved honors.
After a strange prologue scene in which nude women are being inspected front to back, and
one chosen, the construct is that a pretty Ukrainian woman shows up one day in the Italian city of Velarchi. After studying a particular apartment in an upscale residential building, her first contact is with the landlord of the building across the street from whom she rents a flat with a view of the apartment she was watching. Her next move is to the landlord of that apartment building. Presenting herself as Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), a cleaning lady, she offers the man a kickback of 20% of her earning if he helps her get work in his building. When he demurs, she ups it to 30% and soon gets part time work as the building cleaner, establishing herself as an exceptional worker.
Among the residents, the one of so much interest is the Adacher family, whose wealth derives from their jewelry and goldsmith work. In fact, all Irena's efforts are focused on mother Valeria (Claudia Gerini), father Donato (Pierfrancesco Favino), and their troublesome young daughter Tea (Clara Dossena). The obstruction, however, is old-time, trusted servant and nanny, Gina (Piera Degli Esposti).
She makes a point of befriending Gina while brief memories of her past intrude on her activities as harsh, quickly cut flashbacks in a warm yellow-red tonality. The warm coloration of these scenes belie the violent flashes of nude bodies and harsh brutality that is depicted. As the story goes on, the flashbacks become more detailed and depraved, painting a horrendous past that Irena has escaped from, a world of prostitution and tortures at the hands of Muffa (Michele Placido), her sadistic sociopath of a pimp from whose bonds escape is essential. The memories reveal the snakepit of depravity from which this apparent angel has arisen.
Which, along with some kind of hidden agenda, may help explain her capability to cause Gina to fall down a long spiral staircase, ending her days as the Adacher's employee. It isn't long before Irena is interviewed as the replacement and nails it. After a period of adjustment, she is taken into the full confidence of the family and develops an intensely close relationship with bright, frizzle-haired Tea.
But her purposes aren't ended. She searches the apartment and locates the brilliantly-hidden household safe. She spies on Valeria and learns the combination, then goes through its documents. The flashbacks continue and her past catches up to her, seeking money she stole and revenge. Her flat is demolished and her job is threatened.
The effectiveness of the drama can be measured by the excruciating grip Irena holds on you in scene after scene -- piqued by the mystery that surrounds a woman with such driven calculation and slowly revealed past horrors of a life. When the mystery is finally disclosed, the drama hovers around whether she can escape that past and the punishing revenge her enemy is bent on exacting.
Despite a few deaths here and there, this shouldn't be called a murder mystery. Rather, it's a character-motivational thriller of a high order.
Though Leningrad-born Rappoport may be known in the countries in which she's worked, she should come on the U.S. scene making a powerful impression of screen command, bright intelligence and significant dimension. And, as for child actresses, we have our Fanning sisters, our Abigail Breslin and other precociously talented cuties springing from within our shores, but spunky little Clara Dossena doesn't take second place to anyone in her age group, anywhere.
I haven't felt so gripped by a character since "Maria Full of Grace," a high order of achievement wrought by Tornatore and his script "consultant," Massimo De Rita, which bodes well for the movie's destiny in the award competition and in acquiring worldwide distribution. Rich, textured lensing by Italian cinematographer Fabio Zamarion ("Respiro") and an exceptionally inspired, diverse and sometimes moody score by Ennio Morricone add to the tense and sad motifs the story generates. And this from a guy whose already earned a statue on the Via del Corso in Rome. The excellent production values are noteworthy for their apparent lack of compromise coming from a country in which low budgets are the norm.
~~ Jules Brenner
The Ennio Morricone Soundtrack