The Unknown Woman begins the same way director Giuseppe Tornatore’s last film, Malena, operated throughout: by ogling a fine female form. In this case, it’s Ksenia Rappoport, whose blond Ukrainian prostitute Irina is trotted out into a courtyard and asked to strip nude—save for her high heels and white mask, à la Eyes Wide Shut—for the viewing pleasure of prospective clients gazing at her via a peephole. Lascivious gawking soon gives way to grim intrigue as we cut to newly brunette Irina in Italy, where she initiates a plot to ingratiate herself into the life of a wealthy family of jewelers, but this tonal switch isn’t an improvement considering that Tornatore’s exploitation is more competently realized than his thriller’s subsequent plot machinations. Due to a series of events that don’t quite make sense, Irina is hired as the bickering Adacher clan’s maid and babysitter for 4-year-old Thea (Clara Dossena), who suffers from a strange psychological condition that prevents her from defending herself against harm (I think the proper medical name for it is “wimp”). This affliction makes Irina the girl’s ideal caregiver, since by this point Tornatore’s incessant subliminal flashbacks to the Ukrainian émigré‘s prostitute past—which are instigated by virtually everything she looks at or does—have made painfully clear that she’s escaped horrific imprisonment and abuse through take-no-shit determination. Rappoport embodies Irina with a palpable, furtive desperation even as the director sidesteps any thoughtful consideration of her refugee circumstances. Full of ominous spiral staircases, hidden safes, and a bald, oily pimp named Mold (Michele Favino), The Unknown Woman is scored by Ennio Morricone as if he were aggressively trying to imitate Bernard Herrmann, which is apt given that Tornatore is obviously after a particular Hitchcockian strain of suspense. Unfortunately, his story is so rife with plot holes and ridiculous developments, such as Irina teaching Thea how to fight back by tying the girl up and repeatedly pushing her around in the exact manner she was treated by Mold, that the entire affair becomes borderline comical, a mood finally cemented by a conclusion that’s not only far-fetched, but has the gall to try and tug at our heartstrings.
- Outsider Pictures
- 118 min
- Giuseppe Tornatore
- Giuseppe Tornatore
- Kseniya Rappoport, Michele Placido, Claudia Gerini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Alessandro Haber, Piera Degli Esposti, Clara Dossena
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