‘The Unknown Woman’ Explores the Other Side of Paradise

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Nineteen years ago this month, Giuseppe Tornatore’s second feature film, “Cinema Paradiso,” claimed the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The following year, the nostalgic coming-of-age tale won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and became one of the most successful — and perhaps one of the most beloved — foreign films America has ever seen. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who distributed it during the halcyon days of their storied Miramax tenure, have often hoped to recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle, and have begun advertisements for various subsequent releases, “in the tradition of ‘Cinema Paradiso.'”

The 52-year-old Italian director has himself leveraged that calling card and churned out his share of nostalgic coming-of-age mood pieces, including “The Star Maker” (1995), “The Legend of 1900” (1998), and “Malèna” (2000). Then, after a six-year hiatus, Mr. Tornatore returned with a film that marked a radical thematic and stylistic departure. In the contemporary thriller “The Unknown Woman,” which opened on Italian screens in late 2006 and reaches New York next Friday after an extensive festival tour, a Ukranian woman named Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), who works as a surrogate mother supplying babies for a black-market adoption ring, arrives in Italy intent on infiltrating the family that adopted the last child she bore before becoming infertile.

As Mr. Tornatore is quick to point out, “The Unknown Woman” isn’t the first film he has made that is set in the present day, nor is it his first thriller. His 1986 debut feature, “The Professor,” examined the modern Mafia, and his 1994 film, “A Pure Formality,” featured a murder and a case of amnesia.

“It’s a different challenge, because it imposes a narrative discipline on you,” Mr. Tornatore said recently, speaking through a translator. “It has specific rules you can’t completely transgress. There’s a narrative geometry that you have to follow to facilitate your work. But if you don’t follow that geometry well, then you might miss the objective. In ‘The Unknown Woman,’ there’s no murderer to discover. What we had to discover was the human sentiment that drives the actions in the film. So I take the genre of the thriller, then I sort of play with it a little bit to create a variation on it.”

With his latest film, Mr. Tornatore has traded stately montages and smooth camera pans for jittery cuts. Even the composer Ennio Morricone, master of the stirring score, has crafted music that sounds more like a tribute to the ethereal Bernard Herrmann. There are, of course, a few of Mr. Tornatore’s staples: Irena, the resilient protagonist, endures great humiliation that is reminiscent of Monica Bellucci’s star-making turn in “Malèna.” And though it isn’t a coming-of-age story, “The Unknown Woman” features a child in a key role. But a few unsettling scenes in this film blur the line between a mother’s love and child abuse, and will shock anyone who has followed Mr. Tornatore’s career.

“The theme of the film is violence against women,” the director said. “[It is] the story of a woman who was subjected to violence, who was denied her femininity as a woman, who was also denied her maternity, who at a certain point in her life decides to take her maternity, her femininity back, and is ready to do whatever it is required, even to use the same language which she had been subjected to — the language of violence. What she wants to exercise is her ability to love, and through this to teach the girl something that the girl was converted to learn — a way to defend herself.”

Mr. Tornatore appeared concerned that his film might be misinterpreted. Leaning forward in his armchair, he spoke softly and earnestly in a cozy corner of an unused lounge at the Soho Grand Hotel. Specifically, he said, he did not intend for these polarizing treatments of childhood in his oeuvre to reflect the difference between growing up in the postwar era and growing up today.

“I do often focus on the figures of children in my films, because I love their way of seeing,” he said. “To me, the way they look at the world is more interesting than the way adults look at the world. Here, in ‘The Unknown Woman,’ I treated the child the way I treated the children in all of my other films. But this time the character is more complex than the figure of Toto in ‘Cinema Paradiso.’ This difference is determined by the narrative point of view, but not by some distance between the way children lived in the present and the way they lived in the past. What I do is make the films I want to make, and I make them to the best of my ability.”

Still, with “The Unknown Woman,” Mr. Tornatore seems to want to break free from the legacy of “Cinema Paradiso.” And unlike the protagonist in that film, Mr. Tornatore isn’t the least bit sentimental about the classic films of yesteryear. In fact, he does not regard himself as a torchbearer for Italy’s neorealism film tradition, which is typically characterized by stories set among the working class.

“For me, it’s a source of great pride to be working in a country with a great cinematic tradition, as evidenced by the films that were produced in the immediate postwar period,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t know if I could define myself as someone who’s continuing that tradition. It’s not really for me to say.”

At this point, Mr. Tornatore simply hopes to inform his audience of the very real and devastating global phenomenon that is human trafficking.

“I did research into the subject when I was writing the screenplay,” he said. “And the thing that disturbed me the most deeply about this terrifying reality is the price on the babies that are conceived to order, because the price for a boy is higher than the price for a girl. This is inconceivable. This is a huge bias, and I can only hope that my film to some small extent would help shake the conscience of people about this issue.”

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