The Unknown Woman (La sconosciuta)

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A drama with very disturbing scenes of rape and torture

Nov 18, 2011 (Updated Nov 20, 2011)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:acting, cinematography, music

Cons:very disturbing content and confusing as crucial information emerges gradually

The Bottom Line: Not for the faint-hearted! or the impatient either...


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.


IMO, Giuseppe Tornatore is the only Italian auteur du jour (Bernardo Bertolucci went international a long time ago). Pretty much everyone was moved by the original release version of “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). I am a fervent champion of "Malèna" (2000) and a champion of "The Star Maker" (1995). I found much intriguing in “The Legend of 1900” (1998) and "Baarìa" (2009).

I have not seen Tornatore’s first movie, “Il camorrista” (1986) starring Ben Gazarra as a mob boss. Of the Tornatore movies I have seen,  “La sconosciuta” (The Unknown Woman, 2006) is most like “The Legend of 1900:  not being set in Sicily and being focused on an alien who cannot “go home” again. Here it is a frizzy, dark-haired Ukranian woman Irena (Russian stage acrtress Ksenia Rappoport), rather than a suave African American pianist who stays on a cruise ship, never touching land. Presumably the pianist, who looked to me based on “Jelly Roll” Morton, had a traumatic past. Irena’s demons are not metaphorical. They are not only tangible, but present, in particular a terminally smug, vicious, stocky, and bald-headed pimp called “Mold” (Michele Placido).

The movie begins with a long flashback (that I still find confusing in some ways having seen the whole movie) with extended full-frontal female nudity (usually, it takes a while for Tornatore to dispense that; full-frontal male nudity never).

Flashbacks (with the emphasis on “flash”) continue through the movie with a (bleached blonde) woman tortured by Mold and forced to service customers. The seeming present (I guess that gives away that there will be a third timescape) involves Irena scoping out the top-floor apartment of a couple of goldsmiths in Trieste, Tea and Donato Adacher (Clara Dossena and Pierfrancesco Favino), who have a daughter, frizzy-haired
Valeria (Claudia Gerini) who does not know how to fall, and is, therefore, relentlessly bullied by children delighted in hurting someone helpless.

Irena befriends the Adacher’s aging maid Gina (Piera Degli Esposti) and contrives to take her place, proving herself a perfect maid, cook, and quasi-nanny. What she is after is very slowly revealed. How it relates to the horrific flashbacks is even more slowly revealed. Tornatore, the writer, forces the viewer to piece together the mystery/ies, and it seems to me that there are some important pieces that are never revealed, though eventually the pieces fit together.

Aside from the annoyance at excessive manipulation, which others may find less irritating than I do, some of what goes on (went on) is horrific and very unpleasant to watch, even in flickers of flashbacks. The violence visited on defenseless Valeria is also very disturbing and more drawn out.

This is not a movie that I like or that is seeking to be liked. (It is almost as disturbing as the lynching-centered “Strange Fruit”). I wish that such things did not go on in the world. Alas, they do, and Tornatore confronts them in dramatic fashion. Rappoport maintained my sympathy, even as she did some bad and/or risky things. Her performance certainly deserved the Italian film award (David di Donatello) that it won. Tornatore has a phenomenal ability to elicit compelling performances from children, and did so again here with Claudia Gerini, who is in some ways quite willful, in others helpless.

Michele Placido is plenty scary as a particularly nasty villain, and the supporting cast delivered very well. Ennio Morricone again delivered a musical score that no one would call “background music.” The savage string-playing surely is an homage to (rather than a theft from) Bernard Hermann’s memorable music for “Psycho.”

Tornatore movies always have great visual flair. He storyboards them (I recall). Fabio Zamarion managed different palettes for different times in the story.

The violence against children and women is too disturbing for me to recommend the movie, but it is very accomplished and not IMO exploitative. (But I have expressed some other irritation at its construction’s doling out information.) I would rate the movie NC-17, but the MPAA raters, not for the first time, show their high tolerance for violent imagery and rated it R, the same category that they use on movies with the most benign and tender same-sex sex scenes without any full-frontal nudity.

The DVD has a commentary track (in Italian) from the director. It is subtitled in English and I do not doubt that Tornatore has interesting things to say (extrapolating from the "Baaria" bonus features), but I do not want to watch the movie again, especially with the commentary subtitles making the subtitles for the movie unavailable.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

Thanks to Sue for adding this to the database!

The viewer must serve as detective, though eventually some police and prosecutors show up. The movie includes digging up two corpses from, shall we say, unmarked graves, so though far from elementary, I think the movie may fit in Talyseon’s mystery writeoff.


Recommend this product? No


Viewing Format: DVD


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