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The Unknown Woman

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/30/2008

Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is best known in America for his steroidally nostalgic 1988 art-house hit Cinema Paradiso, and while his career is marked by other quaint fare, darker moments occasionally creep into his movies. His latest is his bleakest yet, as The Unknown Woman charts a taut mystery of sexual slavery, unflinching misogyny, and outright luridness. That it's also a rather classic Sirkian melodrama is part of its gripping but ultimately conflicted storytelling. Irena (Ksenia Rappoport) is a Ukranian immigrant to northern Italy who hides her prostitute past to work as a housekeeper--although how she secures this position is problematic--for a wealthy family in a posh apartment complex. Her ward is the young Tea (Clara Dossean), who is beset by an obtuse condition that renders her unable to fight back when bullied. What follows is a psychological investigation of Irena's harsh life as she tries to teach Thea to be tenacious enough to survive life's indelicate blows. The thriller and the melodrama make clumsy, at times incompatible, bedfellows, but Rappoport's muscular, almost single-minded performance keeps it arresting throughout--even if the movie ends up feeling like arty giallo.

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