31 October, 2008

La Sconosciuta (The Unknown) (2006)

Dark masterpiece

As part of EFA’s ongoing commitment to the cream of European cinema, a passion that we share with our sister site Picturenose, Colin offers his thoughts on a modern Italian classic…

The main problem with Italian cinema is that most of it stays in Italy. A nation that is happy to share its cuisine, culture, style and general all-round dolce vita with the wider world is remarkably reluctant to export anything but a small percentage of its huge celluloid output to the global viewership. As a result of this, my experience of Italian cinema has been, up to now, either political polemic or Fellini-style “let’s fall in love and have some linguini vongole and a bit of a dance”.

La Sconosciuta (2006), written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso (1988)), not only opened my eyes to just how powerful and torrid Italian films could be, but also moves me to say something I have never put in print: This is the best film I have seen this year, by a long way.

I am also rarely moved to describe a film as ‘flawless’. La Sconosciuta is, save for one very minor gripe, more of which later. The story centres around Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), a Ukranian immigrant, and her struggle to escape her past - a past that simply won’t go away, and is personified quite horrifically by a figure named Muffa (Michele Placido). Tornatore’s direction is extremely tight and very well measured. He takes a fairly non-linear format at the outset, making it difficult to see where it might be going. Only when he has sucked you into Irena’s world and totally hooked you, does he reveal, piece by piece, the full horror of her situation. Many aspects of her story are not revealed until much later in the film, and this serves as your ‘reward’ for paying close attention.

Irena’s story begins as she is forced into prostitution by the cruel and sadistic Muffa, the gangmaster of numerous unfortunate Eastern European girls forced into the sex trade. In flashback, we learn of happier times with her husband, and just how her life descended into hell. She arrives in the city of Verlachi, rents a surprisingly expensive apartment, and seeks work as a domestic help in the building across the street. Eventually, her hard work is noticed by the residents and she manages to secure a better position as housekeeper for the Adacher family, then finally as a nanny to their daughter Tea (Clara Dossena). Watching this progress, you could be forgiven for thinking that she is finally coming out the other side of her harsh and difficult life but, in reality, the true horror is only just beginning. The plot twists and sidesteps in many places, sometimes taking you by surprise completely. It would be impossible to give examples, as to even divulge one would spoil this complex and mesmerizing tale.

Rappoport really does give an outstanding performance, one that is thoroughly believable and displays a range of emotion many actors could study as a masterclass in the art. Calculated but fluid, beautiful, touching and thoroughly haunting. In fact, there’s not a duff performance from anyone involved. Irena, Muffa, Claudia Gerini as the aloof but kindly Mrs Adacher - they’re all so perfectly drawn and directed, but not forced. Every performance is individual and genuine. The most remarkable effort for me was how Tornatore coaxed such a superb performance from Clara Dossena, who can’t have been more than five years old. Truly wonderful.

As I mentioned at the start, there is one thing that I felt was not quite right. The score was provided by Ennio Morricone, the now-legendary composer. The problem lay not in the score itself, which, as you might imagine, was a superb piece of original orchestration, but that it sometimes overpowered the action and dialogue. Rather than being a backdrop, it was too often in the foreground - somthing I found a little unsettling. It’s entirely possible that this was done for dramatic effect, but I think it was slightly over-done in some places.

OK, so one very minor gripe in an otherwise fantastic and moving story. I’m not sure about the distribution of this film, but it’s won a good few awards now, including the 2007 European Film Awards Audience Award for Best Film, so maybe we’ll get lucky and the Italians will decide to share this gem with the rest of the world. If you can buy or rent it, do so - you will not be disappointed.

Awards: Click here for more details.

118 mins. In Italian.

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