Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kseniya Rappoport, Michele Placido, Claudia Gerini, Margherita Buy, Pierfrancesco Favino, Piera Degli Esposti, Clara Dossena, Alessandro Haber, Angela Molina, Pino Calabrese, Nicola Di Pinto
Written by: Giuseppe Tornatore
Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 118
Date: 10/19/2006

The Unknown Woman (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Nanny Sham

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is best known for sweet, touching art house-friendly movies like Cinema Paradiso (1990) and Malena (2000) that send people away feeling gooey and cuddly. But most people only saw the shorter, lighter Miramax versions of those films; the director's cuts are available on DVD and both films are in reality a good deal darker and more pointed (the MPAA rating on Cinema Paradiso changed from a PG to an R). That tone gets closer to what's going on in Tornatore's new film, The Unknown Woman, which unfurls as a restless, panicked, devastating emotional roller coaster, meticulously planned and executed like a razor.

Irena (a knockout centerpiece performance by Kseniya Rappoport) comes to Italy from the Ukraine looking for work. By paying a concierge part of her salary, she gets a job cleaning an affluent apartment building. She befriends Gina (Piera Degli Esposti), a nanny for an upper-crust couple, Valeria (Claudia Gerini) and Donato Adacher (Pierfrancesco Favino), and their daughter Thea (Clara Dossena). Irena deliberately trips Gina on the long stairwell and takes over Gina's job. She tries to win over Thea while casing the apartment, looking for access to the family safe. Very often, Irena suffers uncomfortable flashbacks to her terrible past, serving a pimp-like thug called "Mold" (Michele Placido) and attempting to break away from him when she falls in love with one of her johns. In the flashbacks, she is a dirty blonde, very often victimized, pleading, submitted to rape and other forms of torture. The new Irena, 32, with a mound of tightly curled black hair, is not so easy to catch off guard. She was once beautiful, but her face has now weathered through pain and hard-earned wisdom. Tornatore reveals more and more details as the film goes on. In one flashback Irena digs through the filth in a city dump. What's she looking for? I had a guess, but I was wrong.

The Italy we see here is covered with graffiti and no place appears to be safe or comfortable. Even Irena's relationship with little Thea is fraught with disaster. Thea suffers from a condition that prevents her from protecting herself when she falls; the natural reflex to put out her hands is missing. So Thea's every move comes with a dreadful anticipation and more than once she turns up bloodied and crying. Tornatore's camera is constantly pacing and roaming, as if filled with pent-up energy and finding no place to spend it. Miraculously, he avoids the typical hand-held, shaky approach, which, these days, is used to signify chaos. Editor Massimo Quaglia keeps up with this restlessness perfectly, never disrupting it or breaking the flow, and legendary composer Ennio Morricone provides another effective, unobtrusive score.

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