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: The Unknown Woman  ( 1293 )
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« : May 31, 2008, 09:36:09 AM »

Through a Peephole: Woman on a Quest
Published: May 30, 2008 New York times

Giuseppe Tornatore’s sleazy Hitchcockian thriller, “The Unknown Woman,” keeps you glued to the screen despite your increasingly nagging doubts about its integrity. Just under two hours, sumptuously photographed in noirish shades and slathered in spine-tingling music by Ennio Morricone, it twists every which way to sustain suspense until the final frame.

A story of sexual slavery, retaliation and greed with teasing peephole glimpses of prostitutes being tortured, “The Unknown Woman” licks its lips at every turn. One scene shows the film’s Ukrainian anti-heroine, Irena (Xenia Rappoport), frantically shoveling through a garbage dump to unearth a severed head.

Elsewhere it aspires to be a tear-jerker worthy of “Stella Dallas,” as Irena teaches Thea (Clara Dossena), a frightened girl in her care, to fight back against her elementary-school persecutors. The adopted daughter of a wealthy Italian couple who make jewelry, the girl has a mysterious ailment that renders her unable to stand up after falling down.

Some of the most unsettling scenes show Irena repeatedly knocking Thea, whose arms are bound to her sides, to the floor and training her to stumble to her feet. These are interwoven with flashbacks of Irena as an enslaved prostitute resisting her former pimp and slave master Mold (Michele Placido) and being slapped around. A sadist with a glistening shaved head and a fiendish gleam in his eye, Mold is a clichéd Eastern European goon. In one of the film’s many anything-for-a-shock moments, he and a partner, dressed in identical Santa suits, attack Irena on the street and nearly beat her to death.

Mr. Tornatore is still best known for his gentle, nostalgic crowd pleaser “Cinema Paradiso” (1988), which established him as a master entertainer in the post-Fellini school of emotionally overwrought realism. “Malèna” (2000) was a succulent ode to the charms of Monica Bellucci, presented by the movie as the juiciest Italian export since Sophia Loren.

“The Unknown Woman” begins with a flashback in which Irena, in a blond wig and white mask (an echo of “Eyes Wide Shut”) and dressed only in underwear and spiked heels, joins other prostitutes to audition for a client seen only as a peeping eye. The movie abruptly cuts from the recent past to the present in a northern Italian city where Irena, now a drably outfitted brunette with large haunted eyes, finds a job as a janitor in an upscale apartment building. The residence is inhabited by an unhappily married couple, the Adachers (Pierfrancesco Favino and Claudia Gerini), and their daughter, Thea. For all of Irena’s protestations about needing a job, she produces a wad of cash to rent the apartment across the street, the better to spy on the family.

Irena befriends the Adachers’ doorman (Alessandro Haber) by offering him a percentage of her salary, and through him meets the family’s garrulous live-in maid, Gina (Piera Degli Esposti). No sooner are they pals than Irena contrives a near-fatal accident in which Gina tumbles down the building’s spiral staircase.

Replacing her as the Adachers’ housekeeper, Irena surreptitiously scours the place, searching for a mysterious something. She also develops an intense, seesawing relationship with Thea, whom she alternately bullies and coddles.

Ms. Rappoport’s sturdy performance helps keep this outlandish melodrama from collapsing into unintended comedy. If her character, as written, doesn’t add up psychologically, Ms. Rappoport still makes this ruthless, scary woman on an unidentified mission mostly sympathetic. That’s no mean feat given the brutal lessons in survival she imposes on the little girl and the attempted homicides she commits in a desperate quest to find out what she has to know.

Written (in Italian, with English subtitles) and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore; director of photography, Fabio Zamarion; edited by Massimo Quaglia; music by Ennio Morricone; art director, Tonino Zera; produced by Laura Fattori; released by Outsider Pictures and Medusa film. At the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Xenia Rappoport (Irena/the Unknown Woman), Michele Placido (Mold), Claudia Gerini (Valeria Adacher), Pierfrancesco Favino (Donato Adacher), Clara Dossena (Thea Adacher), Margherita Buy (Irena’s Lawyer), Piera Degli Esposti (Gina) and Alessandro Haber (Doorman).

"When you feel that rope tighten on your neck you can feel the devil bite your ass"!
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