Italian film-maker Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Unknown Woman” (2006) opens with groups of young women in underwear (their face obscured by masks), displaying themselves for unseen buyers, who are hiding behind a peephole. A blonde-haired woman named Giorgia is selected from the group and asked to strip nude. She is commanded to turn in every direction for a thorough inspection. A man behind the peephole says ‘she will do fine’. The blonde-haired woman walks back puts on her underwear and removes her face mask and the shot cuts back to a curly-haired woman on a train with a desperate look on her face. The unknown woman on train seems a little older version of Giorgia and as this unknown woman makes her way into the elegant streets of Italy, the camera cuts back briefly to depict her deplorable past as a prostitute and sex slave. There are lots of blink-and-miss shots of the unknown woman getting raped, beaten and humiliated in unspeakable ways. If you feel that the descriptions of opening sequences are too exploitative and violent, then it’s better to give it a miss. However, “The Unknown Woman” is a well-crafted, puzzling thriller with an intriguing mystery at its core.
The unknown woman’s name and identity isn’t much of a mystery. Her real name is Irina (played by Kseniya Rappoport) and she is an Ukranian, forced into the prostitution ring by a brutal Russian pimp Muffa (Michele Placido). Nevertheless, the inscrutable part is that what she is doing in an elegant neighborhood, looking for a job as maid; how did she manage to escape from her hellish past; and what’s with the load of money she is carrying on. The first question is answered earlier as Irina is fixated on a wealthy Adacher family (mother Valeria, father Donato and little, frail daughter Tea). She works as a janitor in the apartment, where Adacher’s reside. But, Irina is desperate to get into the family’s house as a maid. The unknown woman also seems to be chased around by some rough guys, who want the huge sum she has stashed away.
Director Tornatore was best known for art-house classic “Cinema Paradiso” and his film-making career is filled with intricately crafted films like “A Pure Formality”, “The Legend of 1900”, and “Malena”. Compared with Tornatore’s previous films, “Unknown Woman” is too dark and contains sequences of gratuitous violence. The film shows excessively details the violence and abuse faced by Irina. We repeatedly see how cruelly she was treated as a sex slave (whipped, urinated and tied). Such drastic scenes are of course crucial to the story and to makes the viewers feel for this perplexed woman’s heartwarming quest. These scenes persuade us to know how she escaped from such a sickening menace and adds a fine dose of melodrama when she spends time with the Adacher family. However, the mystery element is little too overdrawn and the sexual abuse repeated too much to use the label ‘exploitative’.
Tornatore imbues the mystery quotient like the suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, but as the melodrama and violence increases, we get the feeling of getting into the Dutch film-maker Verhoeven’s territory (“Basic Instinct”, “Show Girls”, Black Book”, etc). It is commendable that Tornatore has transformed a thin plot into a bewildering thriller, but it seems to be missing some psychological perfection, found in the works of Hitchcock or Kubrick. That said, “Unknown Woman” still works as a good thriller, thanks to Kseniya Rappoport’s emotionally draining performance. Her enigmatic eyes and sad aura coerces a viewer to learn the driving force of her quest. Rappoport’s Irina does horrific things too, but she cajoles us to root for her character. The child actor Clara Dossena as Tea is equally mesmerizing. The cinematography is also as stunning as Tornatore’s other resplendent works.
“The Unknown Woman” aka “La Sconosciuta” (121 minutes) is a fairly engaging mystery/thriller with a good mix of heartbreaking human drama (it is wise to warn that the film contains scenes of sexual violence and degradation, which are not for the faint at heart).