The Unknown Woman (***_ )
It doesn’t seem fair to give too much away about The Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta), the new outing by Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore. Despite its flaws, the film depends so much on mystifying and terrifying its viewers that even the slightest spoiler could eradicate its considerable potency.
That said, it becomes clear during the film’s first sequence—in which women in high heels, masks and nothing else line up in a darkened warehouse to be appraised by the peering eye and booming voice of a hoodlum—that it is about sex trafficking. Irena (Xenia Rappoport) is a Ukrainian woman who has been selected from the lineup, but we are not immediately privy to what she goes through. Instead, we next see her several years later, her hair a different colour, looking for an apartment in the fictional northern Italian town of Velarchi. She finds work as a cleaning lady and does increasingly strange things, the motivations for which are only partly divulged in a series of flashbacks to her harrowing past.
The Unknown Woman may be about sex trafficking, but it could never be mistaken for realism. Imagine Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw mixed with Dario Argento’s Suspiria and you get a pretty good idea of what Tornatore is after. Buttressed by Ennio Morricone’s lavish score, this is Italian gothic at its most operatic and Catholic. It follows that some will disparage the film for its bad taste, especially in light of its subject matter, and yet the thrills Tornatore whips up are essentially conscience-stirring (the performance of Clara Dossena, a fragile little girl who becomes symbolic of everything the film has to say about exploitation, proves yet again Tornatore’s talent for directing children). Indeed, The Unknown Woman slackens in its last half-hour, when it goes too far in spelling out the details of its plot. A film this incredible need not bother with such belaboured logistics.
The Unknown Woman is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.).