Published May 08, 2008Giuseppe Tornatore (Malena, Cinema Paradiso) has attempted to fashion a Kubrick/Hitchcock style exploitation thriller but has wound up with something more akin to the works of Paul Verhoeven. The Unknown Woman is certainly an intriguing exploration of the mystery behind a morally questionable victim of abuse but features too many plot-holes and unlikelihoods to satisfy the discerning audience its likely to attract.
The film opens with several masked women, who don underwear and high heels, being displayed for unseen buyers who watch from behind a peephole. The woman selected from the group is asked to strip nude, turn around, give everyone a good look, then dress. When her mask is lifted, the blonde Ukrainian Irina (Xenia Rappoport) is revealed. The film then jumps to Italy where a brunette Irina is desperately trying to manoeuvre herself into the lives of wealthy Valeria (Claudia Gerini) and Donato Adacher (Pierfrancesco Favino), as well as their daughter Tea (Clara Dosenna), who looks suspiciously like Irina.
As Irina slowly integrates herself into this new world, she is reminded of her past life in a prostitution ring, where she was regularly raped, beaten and urinated on by the bald and oily Muffa (Michele Placido).
The gratuitous violence against women, along with lengthy child abuse sequences, all viewed from a fetishistic and inherently male perspective, leaves an unsavoury taste in the mouth of the viewer. Clearly the intention was to make these sequences unsettling, ultimately driving home the horrors Irina has endured, but they are framed with desire rather than disgust.
That said, the photography in the film is consistently stunning. In particular the scene where Irina is brutally beaten by two men dressed as Santa Claus. Its horrific to view but the actual shot is resplendent.
As the object of the male gaze, Xenia Rappoport delivers an intense and emotionally draining performance. Driven by sheer determination despite her inner moral conflicts, she gives heart to her often disturbing choices. Its hard to believe that she actually learned to speak Italian while shooting this film, as there is never a misstep in her portrayal of Irina.
Her acting abilities make the many flaws in logic surrounding the mystery and how it unfolds that much more disappointing. The constant head scratching makes it difficult to fully embrace Irinas heartbreaking journey. (Kinosmith)