Image Entertainment // 2006 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Tamika Adair (Retired) // June 10th, 2009
She will stop at nothing to complete her mysterious mission in Italy and to run away from her past.
The Unknown Woman is a meticulously taut thriller that keeps you guessing throughout. As it goes along, it taunts you with horrific flashbacks of a woman's dreadful past. As impatient as I am to try to figure a film out, I struggled to piece this one together until crutch of the plot slowly revealed itself in the finale. Not every question gets answered, but enough do to leave you satisfied.
Irena (Xenia Rappoport), is a Ukranian export, with a sordid past who travels to Italy in search of what was lost to her. With great determination, she manages to integrate herself into the lives of an affluent young Italian couple. But her bizarre and immediate attachment to their fragile little girl, Thea (Clara Dossena), leads to some dire circumstances that no one suspects. Irena risks everything to find out the family's secrets. Intricately crafted and incessantly puzzling, The Unknown Woman uncovers, one piece at a time, the enigma that is Irena's past.
When I watched The Unknown Woman, it was one o'clock in the morning and I was in my bed on the brink of sleep. People find it strange why I choose to start some movies this way. But I figure that I will at least get through the gist of the first act before drifting off to sleep. Most movies, no matter how good they are, don't stand a chance with me. I always fall. Not with The Unknown Woman though. Its twists and turns haunted me awake. There was so much suspense that though tired, I could not close my eyes a bit.
I was vaguely familiar with this film before I watched it. I don't remember the trailer but, I know I saw it. After I inserted my screener, a trailer that I don't remember seeing comes on with graphic shots from random scenes in the movie. I know I didn't see this because I saw the trailer on a DVD and I would have remembered the blood, the nudity and the violence. This trailer prepared me for what I was about to encounter, although I would have preferred to come in cold. Why? Because it diminishes the shock-value and my curiosity about the opening scene.
More familiar with his syrupy sweet coming-of-age films that are filled with romance and melodrama, the opening scene of this film by Giuseppe Tornatore still shocks me a little. He usually incorporates brief nudity into his films in the middle or near the end. But this is an entirely different movie. In the opening scene, young women dressed in lingerie, full-face masks, and heels march in a room in lines of three and proceed to stand in front a peephole where a man vocally decides which one he likes best. He tells them to turn around so he can inspect their assets. He lets the first group go. A second group walks in. This must be the lucky group because the woman on the left, a blond-haired Georgia, is chosen and her two friends are told to go. Georgia is ordered to strip down to nothing and turn around slowly. The man says that she will do fine and lets her go. As Georgia walks off to the side, it cuts to a shot of a moving landscape (like from a train). We cut back to Georgia putting her underwear back on. Then, we cut back to an older unknown woman on the train. Then, we cut back to Georgia putting her bra back on. Then we get a close-up of Georgia taking her mask off and we get a glimpse that she looks eerily a lot like the older unknown woman (who you will come to know as Irena) on the train. That's because she is that woman.
I wish I could share much more about the movie. Even a few secrets wouldn't hurt since the film is filled with so many to keep the plot churning. Alas, I cannot. I'm not a master of brevity and I could write pages on this movie. You'll get more about the plot from the synopsis than you will from my own words. Why? Because you're just going to have to see this film.
I will say that this is a surprising turn from a director who brought us Cinema Paradiso and my personal favorite, Malena. Giuseppe Tornatore is an art-house favorite, but even the tearjerker set of mainstream America would like his films if they could stand the subtitles. No one could resist his enchanting, Oscar-winning triumph Cinema Paradiso (1990). In Malena (2000), I fell for the beautiful Monica Bellucci walking through the cobble-stoned streets of her small Italian town, as everyone eyed her every move.
The Unknown Woman is a 180 from Tornatore's earlier work. It's dark, chilling, and it shows you everything without showing you anything. It's an overwhelming emotional roller coaster. As Irena/Georgia slowly unravels under the brunt of her crazy mistakes, both past and present, you feel as restless and panicked as she does to find out her brutal truth. Rappoport's leading performance is enthralling to say the least. As an irreparably damaged woman, irrevocably haunted by her unbelievably disturbing past, Rappoport is credible. Despite the horrific things that she does, Rappoport has miraculous ability to keep the audience on her side. Just like inCinema Paradiso, Tornatore masters the art of cajoling perfect performances from his child actors. Clara Dossena is mesmerizing as the young couple's daughter.
The stunning cinematography by Fabio Zamarion is a wonder to look at. The past is harshly lit and shadowy. Irena's only pleasant memories, with the love of her life, are softened and lush with rich, unadulterated color. The present, murky and gray, captures the random cityscape of an unknown Italian city where the coldness echoes in every quiet street.
The edgy visual style, the high production values, and tense editing are matched by the movie music maestro himself, Ennio Morricone. Morricone must have had Bernard Hermann on his mind when he conceived this remarkable, perfect-for-a-thriller score. With elements from Psycho, it is as intense and razor-sharp as the film is. Every note of his unaccompanied violin's solos, just like every instance of intrigue, is meticulously planned and executed on point. It bleeds suspense.
Because a screener version doesn't include special features, my only regret is the zero I have to give it, which drags the score down too low. Way lower than it deserves.
The audio quality is perfect since I can hear every tinge from Morricone's screeching violin in every haunting note. The video quality is just as good, since Fabio's striking cinematography remains unblemished.
Not for the faint at heart. If you're coming into this film just knowing that Tornatore directed it, it's wise to warn you there are scenes of extreme violence and degradation, especially during two heart-wrenching scenes with Irena and Thea, the young girl she cares for. Thea suffers from a terrible condition that prevents her from using her natural reflexes to protect herself when she falls. Often, she comes home from school with her face and arms bandaged with cuts and bruises from her injuries (that she receives after usually being pushed by the other kids).
In these two scenes I speak of, Irena ties Thea up from head to toe and proceeds to push her to the ground in order to train her to protect herself. In the first scene, the floor is laced with pillows to protect Thea (or, in Irena's eyes, convince her to do it). At first, Thea laughs and giggles, but after a while her laughs quiet as Irena pushes her harder and Thea gets annoyed and says stop. Irena persists and when she finally relinquishes after Thea calls her a whore. After she unties Thea, Thea lets her have it and continually slaps her in the face until she can't anymore. With a smile on her face, Irena praising Thea and asks why didn't Thea slap her before.
The second time she does it, a couple scenes later, it's far worse. As brutal (especially hearing the sounds of her little body hitting the hard wooden floor, sadness in her whimpers and seeing the blood drip from her nose), bizarre and ridiculous as it looks, you still hope it will work so the girl will stop crying and save herself from such torture. Like I said, not for the faint at heart or people who quiver easily at the sight of child abuse.
The Unknown Woman is a raw, compelling, mysterious narrative underscored with the subjects of sexualized human slavery, baby-making schemes, torture, greed, blackmail, and revenge. Tornatore crafts a brilliant, and at times beautiful, work where he reveals enough of the past, in no chronological order, to keep the suspense fermenting steadily until the end. Hitchcock is most definitely his muse. I urge you to see this movie. And if you dare, get your friends to see it. Then if you have the stomach for it, see it again and again. This is the kind of film with so many twists; you are bound not to uncover them all with just one viewing. This is a gem that will be nearly impossible to forget.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site