Review for Giuseppe Tornatore's 'La Sconosciuta' (Italy, 2006).
It ain’t little, but it’s quite strange. La sconosciuta (l.t. The Unknown Woman) is the surprisingly stunning new movie by Giuseppe Tornatore, known to international audiences mainly for Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, best foreign language movie at the 1988 Academy Awards. After directing Monica Bellucci in Malena in 2000, Tornatore dedicated himself completely to the big project on the Leningrad siege left behind by Sergio Leone after his death. La Sconosciuta marks a break from the overwhelming research work for the still-active project.
Set in a north-eastern contemporary Italian city, La Sconosciuta follows the trials and tribulations of Irena (Ksenia Rappoport), a young Ukrainian girl searching for a job. We immediately understand that she’s trying to run away her troubled past, passed as a prostitute in southern Italy. She settles in an old and pricey flat, and, thanks to a selfish caretaker, starts working as a cleaning woman in a rich and distinct building situated in front of hers.
The distant and diffident people around Irena start to embrace and accept her, and while we watch her painstakingly cleaning a big, dirty spiral staircase, she gets more and more in touch with a nanny (Piera Degli Esposti) who is working for a family of rich goldsmiths, the Adacher (Claudia Gerini and Pierfrancesco Favino), taking care of their young girl (newcomer Clara Dossena), deprived of any defensive reaction by a rare disease.
But her slowly building closeness with the family isn’t just a coincidence…
The movie is structured around a duality. The timeline which separates the present life of Irina from the old one is physically correlated to the division between the two houses: her house, and the house she works in. All the dramatic development of the plot, and the violent reemergence of Irina’s troubled past, lies in the interchange and interrelation between these two dimensions.
Ennio Morricone delivers an astonishing score which smoothly alternates two main themes, one consisting of delirious violins à la Bernard Herman, the other one centred on a sweet, sad and mellow melody. The hitchcockain reference of the soundtrack is also visually displayed, mainly for the “in frame” editing used on many occasions, which immediately reminds the famous robbery scene in Marnie.
Most Italian press superficially defined the movie a noir, which is usually a good-for-all definition, and especially good and easy here, when we are facing a deliberate and bizarre fusion of genres. Yes, a distinct noirish out-of-the-past scheme is at work here. But La Sconosciuta is less noir than thriller, only, with an added melodramatic touch. And it’s maybe the closest thing to exploitation that Italian cinema is able to produce now (apart from the mostly unknown underground).
This story of a young immigrate in the rich and opulent north-eastern Italy, could be easily developed into a sociological movie about Italian immigration. Luckily, this never happens.
And here it comes the fascinating strangeness of La Sconosciuta, which lies in the traditions of Italian cinema it condensates. Popular ones. And long forgotten (except by cinephiles and moviegoers of all ages). The first is the full blown melodrama of directors like Raffaello Matarazzo and Carmine Gallone, extremely popular in the forties and fifties, with its socially-violated, family-convicted women and passions bleeding off the screen. The other one is the Italian thriller and its perversions. Don’t get me wrong, Tornatore is no Franco Prosperi or Aldo Lado, but he definitely pushes the envelope in terms of violence for the mainstream audience who he usually addresses to.
In a movie with so many external influences, distant from the director’s past career,
we still feel Tornatore’s touch: at best, when he demonstrates his technical ability behind the camera (the anguish emerging from the architectural shots of the city wrapped into the wind reminds the, albeit unique, way Dario Argento depicted cities like Turin and Rome); at worst, when he relies on a somehow dull editing (with images juxtaposed on a visual analogy basis) or employs way too easy metaphors (the big swiss knife in the hardware store) and delves into farcical, grossy tones (a big clown in a circus which goes farting and burping on and on).
Fabio Zamarion (DP in Respiro by Emanuele Crialese and Evilenko by David Grieco, among the others) does a great job at DP, helping Tornatore in underlining through different tones the duality that separates the worlds crossed by Irena.
Positively gone are the glossy, voyeuristic shots who made Malena nothing more than a big, fat promo for Monica Bellucci’s physical qualities. Thanks to his bizarre blending of genres, a well-fitting and inspired soundtrack, and its over the edge breakout of passions, La Sconosciuta is a movie that escapes the mannerism and stylization which sometimes affected Tornatore’s previous works.
As a big added value to the great cast performance, Michele Placido stars as a greasy, grim, sadistic pimp, completely shaven (no hair, no eyebrows) delivering a shockingly overcharged performance of a primary-driven mafioso set for revenge, an even nastier character than the policeman Anedda played in Michele Soavi’s Arrivederci amore, ciao.
The movie opened Friday, October, 20 2006, following its premiere at the Rome Cinema Fest, distributed in 300 screens (a medium to high number) and gained the third position at the Italian box-office in the weekend (The Devil Wears Prada and World Trade Center came first and second), with the best first weekend gross (€ 747.813).
Trailer (Quicktime, streaming):