'Pure Unknown' Traces the Struggle for Dignity in Death

Directed by Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo

BY Alisha MughalPublished May 8, 2023

Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo's Pure Unknown begins with the rushing of water, swift and almost glowing, throwing off a soft light that feels calming and sweet. But this sense of safety is deceptive, for we see as the documentary unfurls how uncaring rough waters and the nations surrounding it can be. This film is not so much aggressively investigative as it is patiently observant, and for this reason, it is all the more incisive and condemnatory as it allows for humanity's indifference and insidious hypocrisy to reveal itself. The film is tender and pensive but also incendiary, like lazily lapping waves that eat away at rock, revealing damning truths in its place, leaving them to invade our consciences when we wish to ignore them.

Cicogna and Colombo follow Dr. Christina Cattaneo, a forensic scientist working at the University of Milan. Dr. Cattaneo, when she is not teaching, works to catalogue and identify the bodies of refugees who lost their lives on the Mediterranean Sea before they could get to safety. The asylum seekers who lose their lives on the Mediterranean, or on its shores, are classified as "pure unknowns," and this is when Dr. Cattaneo and her team of forensic scientists step in. Dr. Cattaneo strives to, through autopsying and cunning investigative workarounds, and despite a dwindling budget, identify the "pure unknowns" so that their families might provide proper burial for their loved ones. The film follows Dr. Cattaneo as she works to create a catalogue of data that might allow all European nations to collaboratively better identify unclaimed and unidentified bodies, and also to force nations to reckon with the responsibility they're shirking when they ignore the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the Mediterranean Sea.

There is much silence throughout Pure Unknown as Cicogna and Colombo hover behind Dr. Cattaneo, who waits on a response from government officials and officials at the university to allow her the resources so that she might identify the bodies washing up. "It's only a question of will," a title card reads at one point in the film, meaning that officials and nation heads can very easily allow for Dr. Cattaneo to do her job, allow for families to claim the bodies of their loved ones, but they simply don't care enough.

Through their silent, uncontrived and steady observance, and their unobtrusive following of Dr. Cattaneo, the directors allow for national hypocrisy to shine glaringly bright. As Dr. Cattaneo watches news clips of Italian citizens claiming that it ought not to fall to the nation to identify the bodies of migrants, or that the country shouldn't accept refugees, we increasingly become aware of the violent indifference to foreign nationals that not only costs people their lives, but that also denies them peace in death.

At one point, in an effort to build connections so that she might secure funds for her identification project, Dr. Cattaneo takes on a project to help the Church to analyze and reassemble the skeletal remains of a long-dead saint. The film effortlessly lambasts the ill-placed motives of the Church as it shrewdly and swiftly juxtaposes the glittering, ostentatious display of wealth, all these funds devoted to dressing up the remains of a single person long dead, against the fading funds Dr. Cattaneo must work with as she strives to offer dignity to those who so recently were alive.

The rushing of water, the lives it swallowed, and the magnitude of uncaringness of prosperous nations — this is what Pure Unknown reveals. But, most importantly, it depicts one woman's dogged determination to reach measurable solutions. Dr. Cattaneo wants funds and laws in place so that she can perform her job to the best of her abilities, affording people, all people, the dignity of love, a name, and safety at last.

Dr. Cattaneo, at one point in the film, describes what ambiguous loss is. It's when a person isn't able to reach emotional closure, a kind of respite, after a loved one has disappeared; to be trapped in ambiguous loss means to be arrested in the process of grieving, looking everywhere for answers and finding none. In Dr. Cattaneo's experience, people experience ambiguous loss when they haven't been able to ascertain whether their loved ones have passed away, when they haven't been able to offer them a proper funeral, so that they might pay their respects, so that they might fully process their grief.

Pure Unknown shows what it looks like to pluck a person from the effete gel of ambiguous loss by allowing the deceased access to their names. Pure Unknown shows how easy it can be to provide succour, if only the powerful would allow it.

Latest Coverage