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SLIFF: 'The Unknown Woman'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 11, 2008 - The start of the St. Louis International Film Festival is just a couple of days away, and we'll be using this space to try to preview as many of the 2,340 films (just an estimate) as humanly possible. But there's no way to cover everything, no way to even guess which of the 3,680 films will be an unheralded masterpiece. So take a few chances, go out on a limb. That's what film festivals are for.

In the meantime, I'll have a few brief reviews of some of the offerings, chosen almost randomly. And because the festival sponsors are also the overlords of this web page, I'll be gracious and apply Thumper's Rule here. This is not disingenuous: One thing I've learned from writing about movies for nearly 30 years is that opinions are not absolute, and just because I wasn't particularly moved by an offering, that doesn't mean that you won't be. That, too, is what film festivals are for.

The good news is that even Thumper could find a lot to discuss risking his mother's displeasure. Of the relatively small number I've seen so far, there are some real gems, including a documentary that could bring even the most stoic viewer to tears and a horror film that just may end up becoming a classic of the genre. More to come....

The Unknown Woman

(La Sconosciuta), Italy 2006, Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Though he remains best known in the U.S. for the sentimental art-house favorite "Cinema Paradiso," Giuseppe Tornatore's position in European cinema might be compared to that of an American director like Sydney Pollack or Mike Nichols: dependable, competent, respectably middle-brow. But like many such honorable cinematic craftsmen, Tornatore secretly dreams of being Alfred Hitchcock, as "The Unknown Woman" attests.

Co-written by Tornatore, it's a mysterious and even slightly lurid psychological drama about Irena (Xenia Rappoport), a solemn woman from the Ukraine who carefully guards details of her past. (The audience, of course, remains better informed than Irena's associates; you can't hide from flashbacks.)

Irena calculatedly works her way into the lives and home of a well-off Italian couple, forming a close bond to their troubled young daughter who, besides having appropriated the hairstyle of Al Pacino's sister in "Scarface," has a rare psychological disorder that prevents her from reaching out to catch herself when she falls.

The film veers off in several directions - Irena's flashbacks, her somewhat sadistic methods of childcare and the appearance of a thug from the past looking for stolen money - and may not tie up all of its loose ends to every viewer's satisfaction, but it's held together more than adequately by the tour-de-force performance of Rappoport, who's required to be maternal, manipulative, sexy, cruel and sympathetic - sometimes all at once. She's the reason the film survives its more contrived plot points, and probably the reason it dominated last year's Donatello awards. "The Unknown Woman" has all the surprise-heavy elements of a thriller, but it's a really a one-woman show.

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