Gradually revealing the 'Unknown'

Review: B-

August 01, 2008|By Mick LaSalle | Mick LaSalle,San Francisco Chronicle

Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore's latest, The Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta), finally arrives here, two years after its Italian debut. It's a departure of sorts for the filmmaker, who is best known for lush romance, period pieces and Sicilian settings, with films such as Cinema Paradiso and Malena.

His new film takes place in northeastern Italy and is a suspense thriller about a Ukrainian woman with an unknown past. She's brooding and quietly driven, but the nature of her plans isn't quite clear, at first. Her past - clearly brutal and involving prostitution or sexual slavery - is hinted at in flashbacks, and it takes most of the movie's running time to fit all the pieces together.

Like all Tornatore productions, The Unknown Woman is impeccably shot and has all the marks of a first-rate enterprise. Ennio Morricone, Tornatore's frequent collaborator, contributed an ominous score, one punctuated Bernard Herrmann-style by slashing strings. As in midcentury American thrillers, there are shots included seemingly for the beauty of them (for example, an overhead view of a long, spiraling staircase) - or rather for beauty's way of intensifying whatever is the prevailing mood. In this case, it's anxiety.

Kseniya Rappoport, a Russian actress, plays the heroine, Irina, and remains the locus of audience sympathy and fascination under the almost nonstop scrutiny of Tornatore's camera. As the woman of mystery, she delivers a consistent and coherent performance, even when the story has her doing some outlandish, ridiculous things. She finds able screen partners in Claudia Gerini, as the no-nonsense woman for whom she keeps house, and Michele Placido, the incarnation of self-satisfied evil, as the brutal mobster who once controlled her life.

The movie's one flaw is this: The whole movie hangs on the gradual unraveling of the central mystery and is made with the expectation that the audience is fascinated and hanging on every tidbit. But Tornatore overplays his hand. Eventually, it seems as if the filmmaker is withholding information simply for the sake of manipulating us into caring about something that we don't much care about, after all.

The Unknown Woman might be handsome, polished and well acted, but it doesn't grab you by the throat. It grabs you by the hand and tries to lead you places. If you're willing to go, you'll probably enjoy it.

The Unknown Woman

(Outsider Pictures) Starring Kseniya Rappoport, Michele Placido. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Unrated. Time 118 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles.

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