I wonder if Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore, the man behind the highly acclaimed Oscar winning film “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), takes some kind of twisted pleasure in depicting his lead women being brutally attacked physically. I mean it happened in his “Malena” (2000) which starred the most womanly woman on earth, Monica Bellucci. Of course, I watched that film for all the wrong reasons and ended up feeling turned off after the scene in which they all gang-assault the beautiful creature that is Monica and leave her wounded, bruised, naked, ugly and unattended! Something similar happens in many scenes in his film “La sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman)”, a somewhat confused mixture of an emotional family melodrama + mystery + thriller, but one that works to a considerable degree!
The film begins with some women clad in masks and lingerie being subjected to bodily examination via a small peep-hole by an unknown person. One of them is ultimately “chosen”…...but looks like all of this was from a distant memory as we cut to the present..a beautiful curly-haired woman, Irena (Kseniya Rappoport) from Ukraine travels to Northern Italy and starts looking for a job as a domestic help. But it looks like she is interested only in one household in a particular area. She gets acquainted to a couple of people there and finds out about Valeria Adacher (Claudia Gerini) , who has an adorable but fragile little daughter Tea, a victim of a “rare disease”! Irena makes deliberate attempts and succeeds in getting hired as a maid in that house, and gradually gets close to the family and especially, Tea. Every opportunity she gets she begins snooping around the house, looking for something which isn’t initially clear. In the midst of all this, we are given a glimpse of what could be her horrific past in a series of flashbacks interspersed with clever match-cuts in the narrative of the present. The story thus unfolds, gradually unlocking the mystery of Irena, the ‘unknown woman’, and her interest in the Adacher household.
"The Unknown Woman” had potential, no doubt. It had the chance to be a masterpiece of the mystery genre with its intriguing storyline and gripping suspense in the narrative. The film suffers from the “excess” syndrome which mostly plagues a majority of Hollywood thrillers. So while the background score is awesome and crafted by the great Ennio Morricone, there are times when the score goes overboard with the tempo rising to an excess in some of the scenes where the crescendo isn’t even required. There is some racy ‘speed’ music in some scenes playing while some flashback scenes literally “flash” in front of our eyes like some flip book being rapidly turned in a random order! And there are so many such scenes that at some point I felt it was far enough as it became an eyesore. Those scenes, mind you, also depict some of the important happenings in Irena’s life, and hence, a detailed, restrained treatment to these scenes would’ve done them a lot of good instead of such gimmicky camerawork. The cinematography is otherwise superb though, with some beautiful colours clearly distinguishing the past and the present scenes.
But coming back to “excess”,..there is an excess of violence too..especially violence inflicted on women…even children for that matter!
So while we have Irena herself being mauled by unseen men on the street corner till her face turns to pulp, and being stripped and hung upside down and beaten, we are also shown little Tea being beaten up by bullies. We see her fall down, hurt herself, and bleed painfully….I mean showing women being battered is one thing…why should little children be tortured on screen! I am usually not averse to seeing violence on screen, but I thought Giuseppe Tornatore particularly overdoes it when it comes to women; this was also evident in his “Malena”.
The story itself is quite layered, and some twists do catch you unawares. The film per se boasts of riveting suspense, but somehow the handling of some crucial scenes wasn’t deft enough, perhaps. I mean just too many secrets are revealed suddenly and then you are trying to piece it all together, at the same time analyzing if the conclusion is convincing enough. The most impressive part of the film was the match-cut interspersing of the past and the present scenes as mentioned before and the terrific acting from Russian actress Kseniya Rappoport who runs away with all the laurels for her arresting performance as Irena. You know you are watching a professional at work as she carries her composed, confident self in the scenes in the present, yet displays a persona laced with tender traits of motherly love juxtaposed against the helplessness in the face of grave abuse and pain in her past.
Also impressive is sweet little Clara Dossena who plays the role of Valeria’s daughter Tea. It is certainly a task getting some good acting done from children as young as Clara..but Tornatore gets an extremely fine performance out of her and it is indeed a real treat to watch the little one display her cute acting chops.
But while we have such realistic characters on one side, we have a cardboard cut-out “villain” who is made to even look wicked..a fat, bald, mean looking guy with eyebrows shaved, who constantly wheezes as he mouths some inherently menacing dialog!As the ending credits rolled I had mixed feelings about the film. The kind of material that was available with Tornatore could’ve been moulded into something much bigger with better handling, perhaps at the hands of a better director. Unfortunately what we have is a film reduced to an ordinary thriller which is just about decent. That said, “The Unknown Woman” is a film worth taking a look at for its moderate goodness….when you have nothing better to do on a rainy weekend.