Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), a Ukrainian migrant in her thirties, arrives in a northern Italian city determined to find employment at the home of the affluent Adacher couple and their four-year old daughter Tea. Flashbacks gradually reveal that many years earlier Irena was trafficked to Italy for prostitution, resulting in her long-term bondage to a gangster nicknamed Muffa. Forced by her tormentor to give birth to nine children for arranged adoptions, Irena finally manages to escape by stabbing him, taking his money, and leaving him for dead. Having gained her freedom, she becomes intent on tracking down the last of the children she was obliged to surrender, a girl born from a clandestine romance with a man she loved. Believing that Tea Adacher is her lost daughter, she devises a ruthless plan to replace the family’s long-term housekeeper. Once she has succeeded in becoming their trusted employee, she sets about developing a bond with the child. Her efforts are sabotaged, however, when Muffa reappears in her life, with harrowing consequences for all.
Best known outside Italy for Nuovo Cinema Paradiso/Cinema Paradiso, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1989, Giuseppe Tornatore has consolidated his early critical and commercial success by releasing several well-received, widely distributed films over the past twenty years, making him one of the few internationally recognized directors currently operating in the Italian film industry. Though rather traditional in narrative structure and thematic concerns, his work is visually accomplished and emotionally resonant, appealing to mainstream audiences both at home and abroad. Like most of his output, La sconosciuta is a carefully crafted film, featuring strong performances, striking cinematography and a stirring musical score. Yet in some crucial aspects it diverges from his familiar stylistic signature. The film’s most obvious innovation vis-à-vis Tornatore’s earlier work lies in its hybridized deployment of different stylistic registers. Though it is primarily a melodrama, much of its emotional impact comes from the creative admixture of conventions borrowed from other genres, particularly from horror and the thriller. Thanks to a process of delayed revelation and complicated narrative twists, La sconosciuta rivets the audience’s attention, eliciting intense if not conflicting emotions. With marked echoes of Bernard Hermann’s work for Alfred Hitchcock, Ennio Morricone’s dramatic musical score accompanies the narrative’s intricate unfolding, self-consciously heightening the atmosphere of suspense or, alternately, emphasizing the poignancy of Irena’s predicament.
La sconosciuta opens with a particularly striking scene, framed as a flashback. Here, in a dimly lit warehouse, a trio of masked women parade in their underwear for the benefit of a male observer who scrutinizes them through a peephole before singling out the woman later identified as Irena. The use of low-key lighting to underscore the women’s uncanny self-presentation in identical, full-face masks lends an element of the surreal to the scene, which ostensibly alludes to the contemporary phenomenon of sex trafficking from the former Eastern bloc to more affluent areas of Europe. It becomes clear, however, that Tornatore is less interested in articulating a straightforward critique of a dehumanizing social practice than in creating a self-consciously cinematic work that moves beyond the more traditional psychological realism of his earlier films.
As the visual track repeatedly juxtaposes Irena’s experiences in the present with the traumatic memories they involuntarily trigger, images anchored in different time frames begin to cohere for the viewer into a single narrative. The protagonist’s obsessive effort to achieve closeness with Tea aligns La sconosciuta with the maternal melodrama, a subgenre of the so-called woman’s film popular in Hollywood cinema during the 1930s and 1940s, which featured self-sacrificing women reluctantly or unwillingly separated from their children. Tornatore’s film is also reminiscent of Raffaello Matarazzo’s Italian melodramas of the 1950s, which weave elaborate tales of women’s misfortunes, separations, and frustrated experiences of motherhood. Irena, however, is a more complex figure than her antecedents. Though certainly a victim of a terrible history, she is not without agency and is capable of premeditated violence.
At one level the narrative could be read as a paranoid text, reflecting a generalized anxiety about fertility, childbearing and motherhood in a country with a declining birthrate, and one where professional women often entrust their children to the daily custody of foreign-born caretakers. Certainly, the deployment of graphic scenes of violence unsettles any definitive reading of Irena as an entirely benevolent presence. When faced with her objectively reprehensible actions, however, viewers are consistently encouraged to sympathize with her desperate quest for closeness with the child she believes to be her daughter. Tornatore’s complex, polyvalent portrait of the central female character makes La sconosciuta one of his most compelling films to date.