Sunday, October 26, 2008

FILM: La Sconosciuta, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore

La Sconosciuta - (ITA, 2006; The Unknown Woman - US Title)
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Written by Massimo De Rita and Giuseppe Tornatore

In the US, Tornatore’s name will forever be linked to his biggest international hit, Cinema Paradiso, largely because that movie’s blend of nostalgia intermingled with a non-explicit portrait of life’s harsher realities is perfectly suited to the US art-house cinephile’s hunger for restrained whimsy.

Audiences expecting more of the same from Sconosciuta will be greatly shocked by the frankness of the opening sequence in the movie: A nod to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with added cynicism, which then plunges into a mood not unlike a Hitchcock-ian thriller that’s sustained for nearly three quarters of the movie’s running time.

The movie revolves around Irena, the titular unknown woman, a Ukrainian immigrant in Italy who is looking for work as a maid for one particular family, though the depths and the reasons for her single-minded violent pursuit of this work is slowly revealed to us as the plot progresses. Irena is played by Xenia Rappopport, in a performance that is every bit the equal to Carice Van Houten’s leading turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, another 2006 foreign movie about a woman struggling to reconcile her past with her motivations in the present. That movie was hailed as a return to form for Paul Verhoeven, whereas Sconosciuta is largely seen as a departure for Tornatore; Verhoeven’s track record in Hollywood greatly abets this distinction.

Bits and pieces of Irena’s exposition are given to us in fragmentary flashbacks, and slowly, the present day segments start accumulating their own resonance, such as when the audience notes the fact that the family’s young daughter does not resemble either of her parents. It’s a testament to the film’s pull that the large holes in the film’s plot could be glossed over by the desire to see the film’s destination.

To reveal more than this would rob a good portion of La Sconosciuta’s power, and that power helps to contextualize the film’s final act, which abandons the thriller component of the movie, and moves into the message portion of its agenda. The issues the film addresses are very real blots on current Italian society, and likely in the Western world in general. Though largely ignored on these shores, there are a small handful of Indiewood directors and producers who have tackled these topics (John Sayles, pre-Ocean’s Eleven Stephen Soderbergh, Maria Full of Grace), though none with the entertaining panache of Tornatore’s most recent export.

As the audience filed out of the screening I attended, a woman noted “that was the most f’ed up movie I’d ever seen.” This woman seems to have been shielded from either version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and perhaps she should remain thus. For me, La Sconosciuta provided the impetus to look into Tornatore’s other films in order to see if I’ve been missing something by writing him off as a purveyor of safe nostalgic fare.

Reviewed by thebeigeone - 479 words


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