HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still cannot forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore…. our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection.
Here is a rather dark and disturbing mystery drama from a writer/director Doc feels is criminaly underrated, at least outside of his native Italy, Guiseppe Tornatore. A review of another film of his, the slightly better known Malena, will follow in a few weeks.
HCF REWIND NO.54. THE UNKNOWN WOMAN AKA LA SCONOSCUITA 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 116 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tormented by flashbacks to a traumatic past in which she led a horrifying existence as a constantly exploited and even brutalised prostitute, Ukrainian immigrant Irena arrives in Northern Italy. Obtaining for herself a storeroom as her abode, she has a fascination with an elegant apartment building opposite, and in particular a family residing in that building. Determined to edge her way into working for the family she begins cleaning areas of the building, then befriends Gina, the nanny of the family’s child Elsa, who also lives with them and temporarily steals her keys so she can have them duplicated and can sneak into the house. Irena then trips Elsa so she falls down the stairs and is put into a coma, whereupon she is hired to take her place…………….
I am a great fan of the intensely touching, evocative and strikingly cinematic films of Italian director/screenwriter Guiseppe Tornatore, and, though he is rightly regarded as one of Italy’s premiere filmmakers in Italy, I personally don’t feel he has had enough appreciation outside of that Italy, his best known film still being 1988’s Cinema Paradiso. That of course remains his masterpiece, and I doubt he’ll ever better it, but he has constantly turned out great work since like Malena and The Legend Of 1900. The Unknown Woman, though it didn’t suffer the usual indignity of being chopped to pieces, swept the boards at the ‘David di Donatello’ awards in Italy [the local equivalent of the Oscars] but received only minor distribution overseas. I remember eagerly awaiting it to be shown somewhere in London and being disappointed, after which it snuck onto DVD so quietly I didn’t even know it had been released till many months later.
This is all a great shame, because The Unknown Woman is a very fine piece of work indeed. It is an intricately constructed mystery thriller that in some respects moves away from the nostalgic sentimentality that usually comes from Tornatore, and is certainly considerably darker, but is as emotive and moving as ever as well as having a stunning performance by its leading actress. There is much that is disturbing, with Tornatore delving deeper into the heart of darkness than he ever done before or since, but there is also much compassion and much positivity about humanity. Watching this movie again, it seems that Tornatore here is in a place not far than that of the giallo, and I would love for him to make a film in that subgenre, because I think it would rank with the best.
The first scene shows three women in bra and panties being ordered to parade around in a darkened room wearing masks. Two are asked to leave and the remaining girl is asked to strip. Cut to a haunted face on a train, the face of Irina, obviously remembering what we have just seen. She is a very fragile, delicate person, this girl, with terrible memories constantly plaguing her. Being searched in a shop reminds her of being groped and possibly sexually assaulted whilst naked. The flashbacks are initially very quick and not too clear, but they will become clearer and longer as the film goes on. They will not all be nasty either; occasionally, there are remembrances, bathed in bilious light, of a brief respite from the horror, where Irina seemed to, for a while anyway, find love. We always return to Irina’s troubled face, somehow carrying with it unspeakable horrors which even we are not allowed to see, and, despite having no peace, she has a mission and a determination to carry it out no matter what.
So what we have here is two tales, one set in the present, and a more fractured one set in the past. Initially we are mystified as to Irina’s fascination with the family she works for, and especially Elsa. Elsa has a strange, unnamed medical condition I have certainly never heard of elsewhere, but is a convenient excuse for the many scenes devoted to building the relationship between Irina and Elsa, especially where she constantly knocks Elsa down to get her to stand up to bullies, scenes which are a touch unpleasant but pay off with a playground scene which might make you cheer! There is little ‘cheer’ elsewhere though, with virtually none of Tornatore’s usual humour, and rightly so, as his tale here explores the horror of white slavery and becomes a desperately sad account of someone trying to escape their past. The story twists and turns as it moves around in time, and I will say that you will probably guess the main twist half way through, but it is so obvious that I wonder if it was intended to be so, as Alfred Hitchcock did with Vertigo, where the early revelation of the mystery was done to increase the suspense.
Though you won’t find much in the way of ‘action’, suspense is constant in this film, with some early scenes of Irina sneaking around in places she shouldn’t really having a Hitchcock feel to them. There is violence and brutality, notably a stabbing with a particularly huge pair of scissors, and we certainly get a sense of Irina’s dreadful life as a prostitute, though the rape and beatings are not lingered upon. The odd surreal touch is welcome, such as a beating by two Santas, and an imagined moment when Irina is sitting in her sordid room shifting through rubbish for something to eat and money seems to fly in through a gap in the wall. What may irritate some is that some details of the story remain unexplained by the end and other, seemingly important things remain vague. This seems to have been intentional, but I could have done with, for example, a random shot of Irina glancing at a man, being explained. I think I know who that man is, but I’m not sure. It’s also fair to say that the tension dissipates a little towards the end, with not much of a climax and the story resolving itself by quieter means, but I rather like that, and the final scene is tear-jerkingly bittersweet in the great Tornatore manner. It may be simpler than the kissing montage of Cinema Paradiso or Malena’s final walk, but it will still probably make you cry.
Kseniya Rappaport is an actress you will probably not have heard of, and she seems to mostly appear in movies either from her native Russia or Italy which get minimal distribution outside of those countries, but that is a crime, because she is absolutely brilliant in the lead role of Irina, a role which requires she go through many emotions, but the primary one being that of sadness, and even when she is just gazing at nothing, her face somehow tells you what she is feeling. Ennio Morricone, as usual in a Tornatore movie, provides the music, and, though it sometimes resorts to jagged edginess, the overall tone of the score is one of sadness, of a life ruined. Some of the flashbacks are accompanied by an elegiac lullaby, and interestingly all three main themes are in ¾ time. I could do with The Unknown Woman being a bit longer, allowing us to explore its incredible heroine’s character more as well as filling in some gaps. It remains though a very powerful and painful picture that may be in the guise of a twisty thriller but has the emotional intensity of an agonized cry for help. You may weep for Irina, and weep at how these things do happen in this world, but be glad that we are also provided with hope, otherwise the film may have been almost unbearable!