The Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore is best known for sweet, touching art house-friendly movies that send people away feeling gooey and cuddly. It's awfully tough to be a human being and resist his delightful Oscar-winning hit Cinema Paradiso (released in 1990). His film Malena (2000) had more detractors, but I found its images of a beautiful woman walking through the streets (with every eye following her every move) quite powerful and affecting. He once even made a movie with the life-affirming title Everybody's Fine. So when I sat down to Tornatore's new film, The Unknown Woman (his first since Malena), I was ready to be charmed. Instead, the film that actually unfurled was a restless, panicked, devastating emotional roller coaster, meticulously planned and executed like a razor.
Thinking back, I realized that there was more to Tornatore than his reputation suggests. In 2002, Miramax released the much longer director's cut of Cinema Paradiso with its rating tellingly changed from a PG to an R. A few years ago I tracked down an imported DVD of the director's cut of Malena, which was also considerably darker and more pointed; the Weinsteins were really the ones responsible for the softness of those films. I also remembered a movie called A Pure Formality (1994) about a police investigator (Roman Polanski) questioning a mystery man (Gerard Depardieu) found stumbling along the road; most of the film takes place in a damp, sinister police station with flashbacks to what might have happened previously. That tone gets closer to what's going on in The Unknown Woman, which starts with a knockout centerpiece performance by Kseniya Rappoport.