Most stateside moviegoers know Italy's Giuseppe Tornatore as the director of the much-loved 1988 art house classic "Cinema Paradiso." There's more to him, of course (in fact, there's more to "Paradiso," which won the foreign-language Oscar in a much shorter and more upbeat version than Tornatore's original cut). On the basis of "The Unknown Woman," there may be too much more.
"Woman," a 2006 film opening at the Kendall today, plays like a cross between Hitchcock and tabloid feminism, a mix that shouldn't work and doesn't. The main storyline follows Irena (Xenia Rappoport), a Ukranian immigrant in Trieste, Italy, as she patiently worms her way into a job as a nanny to a little girl named Thea (Clara Dossena). So what if the child already has a caregiver, a warm old lady named Gina (Piera Degli Esposti)? Irena removes her in a way that makes you think the movie should have been called "Mary Poppins Goes to Hell."
But we've already been given shock-cut glimpses of the heroine's past, which involves white slavery, forced S&M, and worse. And we've seen amber-lit scenes of Irena's love affair with a smiling construction worker (Nicola Di Pinto) who loves her no matter how many streets she walks. And since Thea and her new nanny have the same hair, we can easily do the math.
The thriller part of "The Unknown Woman" works well, if melodramatically, because Tornatore knows his thundering movie cliches and has the moviemaking skills to enliven them. (It helps that he has hired Ennio Morricone to repurpose Bernard Herrmann's music for any number of Hitchcock films.) The part of the movie that goggles in headline-ripped horror at the ways men mistreat women is effective, too - it's the two halves that sit uneasily against each other.
There's the queasy sense that Tornatore likes showing us violence against women as much as he likes inveighing against it. Do we really need the picturesque gout of blood when Irena is kicked in the head? Or the scenes where the nanny roughs up her charge in order to toughen her up?
The movie looks great at least, and the cast includes such stalwarts of Italian cinema as Claudia Gerini and Pierfrancesco Favino as Thea's parents and Margherita Buy, briefly seen as Irena's lawyer. Rappoport, who has to frenziedly dig through city dumps when she's not being subjected to horrific sexual abuse, gives a performance that can only be called heroic. Yet if she creates in Irena a movingly damaged figure, it's hard not to suspect the director's responsible for some of the damage.