Ukranian immigrant Irena (Xenia Rappoport) is inexplicably drawn to the Italian home of the Adacher family and orchestrates events to replace their elderly nanny and become the trusted maid and caretaker of young Tea (Clara Dossena). Irena's mysteries are slowly uncovered and we see how her past translates into her desperate present as "An Unknown Woman."
Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore ("Cinema Paradiso," "Malèna") reveals a hitherto unknown side of his own with this dark jigsaw puzzle of a mystery. The film is also stylistically different from anything he's done before, it's razzle dazzle construction and jazzed editing in line with his fractured construction.
Irena insinuates herself by casually becoming acquainted with the Adachers' current nanny, Gina ((Piera Degli Esposti) and when she suffers an accident, Irena is at the ready. Outside of the Adacher home, though, Irena is still dealing with her past, which appears to be not only haunting her, but hunting her. Tornatore reveals shockingly sordid flashbacks of the woman as a bleached blond sex slave in another land, and the man who ruled her, Mold (Michele Placido, "Lamerica," "The Caiman"), has far-reaching tentacles. Is this why Irena is weirdly adamant about teaching Tea to stand on her own two feet by binding the child's arms and legs and pushing her over? Irena's behavior is always strange, even becoming criminal, but we know it directly leads to events in her past and Tornatore keeps us guessing until the end while Rappoport keeps us on Irena's side.
After the warm hues and nostalgic pace of Tornatore's former films, the harsh realities of "An Unknown Woman" come as a bit of a jolt. The film is dark and raw as a fresh wound. Production values are top notch, the edgy visual style matched by a score from the legendary Ennio Morricone. The film's intricate plot, which features scenes of extreme violence and degradation, comes to a satisfying conclusion in which our loyalty to Irena pays off.
Robin gives "An Unknown Woman" a B-.
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