Giuseppe Tornatore’s best films, ever since early features “The Professor” and “Cinema Paradiso,” have been marked by a strong emotional focus; in this sense, at least, “The Unknown” ranks as a return to hardball for a director who sank into meandering mood pieces in the ’90s until his last film six years ago, the drooling Monica Bellucci vehicle “Malena.” Current pic brings peaks of violence and suspense to the vivid story of a young East European prostitute-turned-cleaning lady intent on carrying out a mysterious mission in Italy. Calculated thriller elements could bring back many fans.
On the other hand, the film has major problems blending the strong social theme of exploitation and white slavery with Tornatore’s noirish screenplay, full of holes and improbabilities. The Medusa release was well-received by local press on its competition bow at the Rome Film Festival, indicating it will benefit from critical support domestically, but it will probably have trouble drumming up more than a mixed response abroad, where tighter scripting is expected in a thriller.
Startling opener takes place on a kind of private stage where trios of masked young women clad only in underwear and high heels are evaluated by an unseen man, like a director doing casting. Only much later is it clear this sinister rehearsal, shot in a Kubrick-like brew of surreal neon colors, involves a client selecting a hooker for a very special purpose.
The blonde he picks is Irina (Russian actress Ksenia Rappoport), and her backstory, skillfully woven into the film by editor Massimo Quaglia, is the typical one of a Ukrainian girl drawn into an international prostitution ring. In Irina’s haunted memories, she is raped, tortured and put on the street by a bald brute known as Mold (Michele Placido), who also kills her boyfriend.
Present-day Irina is a mousy brunette of 32 who finds an underpaid job cleaning the stairs in an old apartment building populated by jewelers. Despite her humble pose, she walks around with a wad of cash in her pocket and is able to rent an expensive apartment, right across the street from the warring Adachers (Claudia Gerini and Pierfrancesco Favino) and their little girl Thea (Clara Dossena.) Irina worms her way into their home and into Thea’s affections. Her unknown motive keeps the story suspensefully on edge all the way to the overwritten, very unlikely revelation scenes at the end.
Scenes of violence against women and children leave a very unpleasant taste, though their repulsiveness is almost certainly deliberate. Mold’s humiliation of Irina is truly distasteful. In turn, Irina has become one tough customer to survive. When she decides to teach little Thea how to defend herself from bullies at school, her methods are rather sickening.
Despite the odds, Rappoport shows an impressive ability to keep the audience on her side. Her Irina qualifies as one of the most deeply nuanced film portraits of a woman who has lived through the hell of human slavery. Even after she manufactures an accident to get rid of the Adachers’ nice live-in maid Gina (Piera Degli Esposti), Irina is complex enough to stay on this side of total villainy.
Well-cast in supporting roles are the cream of Italian cinema, from Gerini and Favino as the parents to Alessandro Haber as a sleazy doorman. A monstrously made-up Placido gleefully throws himself into the role of Irina’s brutal torturer; at the other extreme, stage thesp Degli Esposti is a warm presence as the ill-fated maid. Angela Molina (as a midwife) and Margherita Buy (a lawyer) flash by in mini-cameos.
Pompously solemn at times, at others sinisterly noirish, pic is tarted up with an invasive Ennio Morricone score that bears more than a passing resemblance to vintage Bernard Herrmann. Fabio Zamarion’s lensing lends a rich, slightly oppressive atmosphere, like the eye-candy sets by Tonino Zera. Action was shot largely in Trieste, but its old-world beauty has been disguised as a fictitious town in the north.