The world isn’t a very big place anymore. Where on Earth would you have to go, for example, to find someone who doesn’t know who Kate Hudson is or who hasn’t seen the trailer for Watchmen? American movies are the Coca-Cola of pop culture, and we’ve arrived at a point in history where the whole planet happily drinks them in.
Cultural currents flow in both directions, of course, though foreign films that make it to our shores tend to be limited to the cream of the crop. What’s surprising, then, about The Unknown Woman isn’t that it’s an exceptionally well-crafted work, but that its arrival has stayed so totally under the radar. This is, after all, the latest from Giuseppe Tornatore, the writer-director best known on this side of the pond for Cinema Paradiso. It’s also the movie that swept the Donatello Awards — the Italian Oscars — winning Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Music. It’s the biggest international hit you’ve never heard of.
Ticket buyers anticipating the gentle, heartwarming charms of earlier films such as Paradiso, The Legend of 1900 and Malena are likely to be very much taken by surprise. Tornatore’s new film is a creepy, ultra-violent thriller that variously channels Hitchcock and Kubrick while dealing with themes as distasteful as sexual slavery, torture, greed and revenge.
Irina (Xenia Rappoport) is a Ukrainian woman with haunted eyes who has journeyed to a city in northern Italy to find a job. A very specific job. She is intent on becoming housemaid to the Adacher family, an unhappy couple who have a young daughter named Thea and a prosperous jewelry-making business. It isn’t clear which one they’re staying together for.
Why does Irina want to work in this particular home? That’s the first mystery. The next is how she’ll gain the position. We learn how determined she is when she offers to pay the building’s sleazy concierge a share of her salary if he’ll recommend her. And again later, when the family’s current maid unexpectedly vacates the post by falling down the apartment house’s spiral staircase to her near-death. Once she’s hired by the family, Irina’s primary interest appears to be the couple’s well-hidden safe. Is it money she’s after, or something else behind that locked door? Mystery number three.
Even as the filmmaker allows the woman’s present-day story to unfold, he interweaves freaky, tantalizing fragments of her past existence. It’s just as well he lets us piece this puzzle together from masterfully edited flash-frames, because the picture they combine to form is not a pretty one. We glimpse a blonde woman in her twenties being victimized in the most brutal fashion by a sadistic pimp named Mold. And soon we learn that he has tracked down the woman he considers his property. He and a cohort dressed as street-corner Santas beat Irina savagely as she walks home one night. Mold wants something from her all these years later and won’t take no for an answer, but what is it? Another mystery.
And there are many more to come. Tornatore builds suspense with the insertion of each new question mark, and the result is one of the most disturbing, yet mesmerizing, thrillers in recent memory. The Hitchcock vibe is compounded by an Ennio Morricone score that sounds as if it was dictated from the next world by Bernard Herrmann, and the camerawork by Fabio Zamarion is stunning. There isn’t a member of the cast who fails to create a compelling character, though the central performance by Rappoport is in a league of its own. For all practical purposes, she plays two roles, and in each her work is nuanced and moving.
Movie critic law forbids my hinting at the manner in which Tornatore answers all these questions and ties everything together — but, rest assured, he does. The final act is all but guaranteed to astonish and satisfy. See this movie. Then tell your friends to see it. Then see it again with them. Filmmaking this wild and wonderful deserves better than a brief, unheralded arthouse run. It deserves the sort of fanfare it’s received in Europe. It’s the toast of the continent, and once you’ve watched it, the reason why will be anything but a mystery.