THE UNKNOWN WOMANNR
Sicilian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore is all heart, but without the gooey chocolate center, which made the sentimental journey to his childhood in Cinema Paradiso (1988) so personally resonant with American audiences despite the specifics of another culture's nostalgia. Malena (2000), his last movie till now, openheartedly gave judgmental townsfolk as much understanding and empathy as it did its heroine.
Tornatore brings a similar sensibility to The Unknown Woman, an uncharacteristic psychological thriller that doesn't much thrill or offer suspense, but does create a three-dimensional figure out of a protagonist who would have been much more simplistic and broad-stroked in a typical Hollywood version. That alone sustains the 2006 Italian release for about half the running time before it veers into ersatz giallo plot mechanisms that range from sloppy saccharine to comically ridiculous to sharp and tight. It's like a puttanesca sauce, with everything in the cupboard thrown in.
As it happens, there actually is a literal puta in the movie's mix. Ukrainian sex slave Irina Yaroshenko (St. Petersburg-born Ksenia Rappoport) has arrived in Velarchi, Italy, with much more baggage than in her single grip. Even before she passes a Janus-faced sculpture on her way to conning and bribing a concierge (Alessandro Haber) to land a cleaning job at a condominium apartment house, we've already been signaled she's putting two personalities into play. Flashbacks fill us in on her past with a kinky and sadistic pimp nicknamed Mold (Michele Placido), who commands girls in lingerie and white-faced masks for peeping rich guys to choose from. In his off-hours, he spends time in some orgy room where sex slaves are whipped and beaten—including Irina, whom he dubs Georgia and keeps as his favored pet. This includes raping her while she's bound and gagged, engendering no mixed Night Porter feelings whatsoever.
Irina's got her eye on one family in the building. Valeria and Donato Adacher (Claudia Gerini and Pierfrancesco Favino) have a four-year-old daughter, Thea (the astonishingly nuanced newcomer Clara Dossena), with an odd mental condition that precludes her from defending herself, even to the point of not putting her arms out when she falls. Their current housekeeper and nanny, Gina (Piera Degli Esposti), doesn't have that problem—which still doesn't save her when Irina leaves a staircase all wet and slippery—either purposefully or accidentally; the movie hesitates to say. Having already befriended Gina, it's a small step for the already familiar Irina to get hired. There, little by little, she becomes a surrogate mother to the child—supplemented by flashbacks to her pregnant-prostitute past, and the only-in-the-movies sweet young man (Nicola Di Pinto) who adored her for who she was.
Irina’s tortured past and tortured plot mechanisms turn up at around the same time, when Mold, whom she thought dead, tracks her down. Then the film goes from being vaguely Hitchcockian (replete with the great Ennio Morricone composing a knife-stringed violin leitmotif for suspenseful moments) to downright De Palma-esque. Water can be filtered down for purity. Film style? Just the opposite.
Beautifully shot and designed in somber tones, The Unknown Woman benefits from a riveting lead performance by Rappoport, an emotionally deep actress able to convey a heartbreaking range of thought and feeling with a perfectly still face, not even moving her eyes. But moments when Irina dresses in Valeria's clothes, lays a suit on the bed next to her and gently reaches out to it, indulging in the thought of the married life and the young man denied to her, are overshadowed by the more frequent potboiler preposterousness.