JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Unknown Woman (Director/Screenwriter: Giuseppe Tornatore) - July 29, 2008
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The Unknown Woman

La sconosciuta

4.5 4.5
118 min.

Compelling narrative, soundly underscored triumph

Giuseppe Tornatore has crafted a film for the ages. With some script assistance from Massimo de Rita, the writer/director is at the top of his game, bringing together a truly mysterious tale of love for family and unbridled revenge in a manner that could only be done in the cinema.

Much of the narrative is rendered via Fabio Zamarion’s filter-savvy (for the back-story), unerring cinematography and Massimo Quaglia’s master class level editing. Frequent collaborator Ennio Morricone (with the beautifully balanced strings in particular of the Nuova Roma Sinfonietta) has written a score that—with moments of Philip Glass divine repetition and Prokofiev-tinted orchestration—is at one with drama in a way that present-day Hollywood can only envy.

Leading the cast is Xenia Rappoport as the gritty Irena. From her opening scene stripping for the privilege of becoming a bonded whore to Ukrainian thug/deviate, Mold (Michele Placido oozes his evil intent with convincing ease, stuttering only in the rare, weak plot point of giving his runaway slave a week’s extension to return her ill gotten cash) through her wily takeover of the family Adacher (Italian jewellers, whose four-year-old daughter already has a “past”) to her brush with the law that ends in justice for all, Rappoport commands the screen and those around her with skill and courage that have seldom been equalled in such an arduous role.

Playing a child with a rare syndrome that turns innocent falls into bruises and blood, Clara Dossena as Thea shows a flair for nuanced dialogue and camera smarts that speaks well for her future. Her parents, Valeria (Claudia Gerini) and Donato (Pierfrancesco Favino) have little to do on their own: the former argues well between liaisons with an unseen lover, the latter delivers his withering looks at Irena (for much of the film, the family’s maid) on demand.

Lurking in the weeds of everyday blackmail is the apartment building’s sleazy porter (Alessandro Haber). Like everyone else, Irena quickly finds his weakness, exploiting her personal power over him only when it’s absolutely required.

Tornatore brilliantly lets Irena’s sordid past flash back to her harrowing present, revealing just enough to muddy the chain of events and keep the suspense steadily fermenting. A woman’s desperation, fuelled by motherly instinct and unspeakable atrocities committed by selfish men, makes nearly all of the conniving heroine’s choices earn our respect and sympathy (save and except for the manner in which she creates a sudden opening in the Adacher household for a new nanny …).

When all is said, done and dug up, the film’s wordless conclusion is an emotional tour de force that remains in memory long after the solo violin’s raw, searing lines have added extra resin to the atmosphere. JWR

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