When perusing the back of the DVD case for The Unknown Woman, you can’t help but notice the disclaimer, “Some disturbing violent content involving rape and torture, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.” Right then, you know that this is going to be one disturbing piece of Italian cinema. You know that there are going to be parts of the film that you might not want to watch. Hell, just the disclaimer might turn you off from watching the movie at all. The Unknown Woman is stacked to the hilt with taboo themes and disturbing images, but are these scarring images necessary and successful?
The Unknown Woman opens with a casting call of sorts. A man behind a peephole spies on three women dressed in underwear and masks. Those women are sent away and another three women enter. One is chosen; she takes off the mask to reveal the face of the movie’s heroine, Irena (Xenia Rappoport). And with that, the creepy noir mood is set. We never go back to that room, but later we find out what the man behind the peephole was up to: casting for a party of unimaginable themes.
After Irena takes off her mask, we flash forward to her present day, in which both her hair and her complexion are a different color. The structure of the movie plays like the mind of a person with post-traumatic stress disorder; it is all stream-of-consciousness. Very little time goes by without a gritty flashback to Irena’s past. The flashbacks are short and show up when something happens to remind Irena of her old life… as a prostitute in the Ukraine. Director Giuseppe Tornatore wastes no time in dipping into the disturbing images; the very first flashback is one in which Irena is naked, bound by rope and apparently being raped. It’s not a pleasant way to start a movie, but this is not a pleasant movie.
Tornatore manages to keep the tension so high that, although we might solve the mystery early on, we still have to keep watching. After getting a broken-down apartment with a good view of another apartment, Irena performs several strange acts, all with her face set in a haunting grimace. She is apparently gathering information about the family across the way, as she rummages through their garbage, befriends their maid, and eventually gets into their apartment. Although these acts might seem mundane, the pacing of the film is so excellent, the music so compelling, and the constant flashbacks so gruesome that, at the very least, we are never bored.
Back to the question at hand: do the images in these flashbacks work? Does the plot justify the outrageously edgy themes? Unfortunately, it does not. Although the film manages to maintain tension throughout, the plot is fairly thin. It is easy to figure out what the mystery of the present-day storyline is, and it isn’t even that original of a theme. The flashbacks make Irena’s story that much more heart-wrenching, but they would have been more successful if they had been toned down about 10 notches. Once Irena is fully integrated as the maid for the family she has been stalking, the movie loses any real mystery. Once we reach that point, we get a scene of Irena tying up a child, repeatedly pushing her down onto a hardwood floor and screaming that she get back up on her own. She pushes the child down over and over, and it is at this point that the movie loses credibility. Irena has crossed a line, but it is the fault of Tornatore. The only reason to keep watching is to witness the horror unfold; to watch what other gruesome scenes Tornatore has in store for his audience. In the end, the movie simply becomes tasteless.
Although director Tornatore shows a mastery of suspense, the plot leaves much to be desired and doesn’t justify the use of the film’s more offensive imagery. With its questionable nature, this movie is controversial enough to spark a heated debate between you and your friends, but ask yourself before you jump in… is that really a conversation you want to have?
The disc is pretty sparse when you consider that The Unknown Woman was wildly successful in its home country and won five Italian Oscars (including Best Film). You would think that Image Entertainment would try and juice up the DVD with loads of extras to take advantage of those achievements. No such luck for fans of The Unknown Woman and Tornatore . The disc includes two short TV spots, one trailer, one making-of featurette, and commentary from the director.
The making-of featurette is mostly montages of behind-the-scenes footage. We also get some interviews with cast members and footage of the director talking on a panel. He speaks about how the movie had, in some capacity, existed all along, but that he just needed to lure it out. One really gets the feeling that this film was like a child for him. There isn’t very much behind-the-scenes footage shown, as the featurette is fairly short and the montages only cover a few moments from the film. Unfortunately, seeing some of these scenes in slow motion with music set to them is quite disturbing, as is having a closer look at one of the scenes in which Rappoport is brutalized.
Getting to spend some alone time with Tornatore for the commentary track is truly a treat. The man is an auteur to the bone, and this film is one that he is extremely proud of. It is fascinating to hear all of the minute detail that went into the making of this film. Tornatore discusses the subconscious, film formulas, feminism, and much more. I actually learned a lot about the film that I could never have gleaned in just one watch. Throughout the commentary, there is a real sense that Tornatore is grounded in the world’s filmscape. He alludes to film structure, genre films, and noir directing techniques in a way that made me understand that everything that happened in that film, every moment, was intentional. This commentary is a must-watch for anyone interested in making truly terrifying suspense flicks.