A deliberately titillating scene opens Giuseppe Tornatore‘s “The Unknown Woman“: three women wearing masks, asses to audience, stand naked in a strangely gilded room to be examined through peepholes. After they’re dismissed, a second round comes out, and a blonde is asked to step forward and strip; “She’ll do fine,” an offscreen male voice intones. As usual, the “Cinema Paradiso” director has an eye for the voluptuous female form, but the lascivious voyeurism of his camera — contained (Tornatore thinks) in his preceding movie, “Malena,” by embedding its obsessive gaze within the point of view of a horny adolescent boy — is made explicit here by its alignment with a prurient perspective. This objectifying introduction to his film’s protagonist (played by Xenia Rappoport) is curiously at odds with the rest of the film, which is filtered through her subjectivity. This slippage explains the unintentional unease which colors the movie from the start, and undermines its attempt to create a credible portrait of a woman.
The title itself poses the question: Who is she? With no exposition, the spectator’s mind races to fill in the tabula rasa. Aural elements — trucks rumbling by, a persistent musical beat — trigger the unknown woman’s memories; the jumps between past and present are delineated by her respectively blonde and now brown hair in a seeming nod to “Vertigo“; and an unrelenting, heart-hammering score by legendary composer and frequent Tornatore collaborator Ennio Morricone, amps up the Hitchcock homage. Only the briefest of flashes from her past, often blurred, divulging little, are imparted, though they increase in length and specificity as the narrative progresses. Eventually, we glean a few details: A Ukrainian, her name is Irena, and she previously worked as a prostitute for a pimp named, um, Mold (Michele Placido). Her circumstances have brought her to Italy, where she stakes out the apartment of the well-to-do Adachers, hell-bent on getting a housekeeping position in their building. Clearly she’s obsessed, but why?
“The Unknown Woman” lives or dies by its slow revelation of secrets, and offers not much else, so best be forewarned: If you still have any interest in seeing the movie, better to stop reading now (yes, spoilers ahead). Through vicious means, Irena eventually insinuates herself into the Adachers family. After she’s hired as full-time domestic help, her duties include taking care of Thea (Clara Dossena), the couple’s adopted daughter. Irena knows from the child’s former nanny that she suffers from a rare condition which deprives her of defensive mechanisms; if she falls, she doesn’t put her hands up to protect herself. Though Irena had priorly demonstrated cold calculation (that would include pushing said nanny down the building’s spiral staircase so that she might replace the old woman), her intentions, though ultimately obvious, don’t fully dawn until a clarifying moment when, putting Thea to bed, she lays her head on the pillow next to the girl’s: Facing one another, with their nearly identical dark, curly hair, you realize Irena has come to claim her daughter.
Tornatore then depicts scenes of what he reassures us is tough love: when the parents are safely out of the house, she binds Thea’s arms by her side and pushes her around, only to make her stand up to be mercilessly thrown down again; then, after Irena unties her, Thea slaps her back and the woman roars with approbatory laughter (accompanied by complicit, laudatory music by Morricone), her abusive actions later legitimized when we witness the girl fighting back against bullies on the school playground (the melody swells once more, with feeling). It becomes only too clear come the mawkish and unproblematized conclusion that despite its seedy, convoluted plot, Tornatore — sentimental as ever, inappropriately so – has intended to make a film about the purity of maternal love, the dogged desperation of which, he ridiculously suggests, absolves this unknown woman of all manner of misdeeds, including attempted murder. Short-listed for the Foreign-Language Film Academy Award and a Best Picture winner at the David di Donatello awards, “The Unknown Woman” has a patina of class, but there’s no masking the bad taste it leaves afterward.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]