He may be best known for the beloved Cinema Paradiso, but Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman, his first film since 2000’s Malena, is a substantial departure from that bittersweet love song to cinema. The Unknown Woman stars Russian actress Xenia Rappaport as Irena, a mysterious Ukrainian woman who ingratiates herself with a prosperous Italian family, taking care of their young daughter. Is she after blackmail? Revenge? Lightning-quick flashbacks provide hints of terrible secrets from her past, andThe Unknown Woman constantly keeps us off-balance with its blend of suspense and melodrama, and its mingling of past and present into one continuous stream.
Saul Austerlitz (MM): How did you come to tell this story? It feels like quite a departure from your earlier work. Was it based on, or inspired by, real-life events?
Giuseppe Tornatore (GT): I was only incidentally inspired by a news story that I read 20 years ago. It was the story of an Italian woman who was arrested for giving birth to two children for payment. And over the years I was drawn again and again to the question of what this woman would have done, if one day she decided that she wanted her children back. Over the years, I worked on it, without any great sense of urgency. And then, after the years, when this story was in a more complete form in my mind, I couldn’t help but notice that in the international market, the illegal market in children, in babies, had become a gigantic market. In light of this, as a complete story it was considerably transformed from what my original idea was, and out of this came the film. It was a film that I was able to develop over the years in great serenity—a privilege for the creative process that the cinema doesn’t often offer you.
MM: Is there a way in which The Unknown Woman can be seen as a real-life horror film, with Irena the savvy protagonist, and her nightmarish past the monster she must struggle against?
GT: In a certain sense, I guess you could say that. But it’s a film in which the protagonist is a woman of our times who is addressing the mystery of her past. It especially concerns what kind of decisions she might make, and why she makes the decision to turn around her existence. It’s a very intimate film in which a certain character helps us to understand some elements of what is a terrible contemporary phenomenon that is all around us.
MM: What inspired the alternation between the darker scenes for the present, and the whites and pastels of the past?
GT: I think it’s a very simple idea at the heart of it. This woman is one clear narrative element—this woman, with her obsessions—and the expressive idea is that these obsessions are always with her, that they never leave her alone. They constantly affect her perception of her own actions in the present. So my main task was to find a way of making something coherent out of the absurd coexistence of a historical present in which she is acting very mysteriously, in ways we’re not quite able to understand, and a past that is always persecuting her, that won’t let go of her, and when she thinks she is almost free of it, out pops the figure of her torturer, who is not dead, as she had mistakenly thought.
MM: The film is an unusual combination of story and mood—a tragedy told as a suspense thriller, with rapid-fire flashbacks. Was it always your intention to tell the story this way, or did it develop during the filmmaking process?
GT: That was exactly what my original idea was. The film came out exactly as I imagined it, and as I wrote it—down to the very jagged editing process that you see. You find that on the pages of the screenplay. My original idea was to tell a story that was a mystery of sorts, but not a mystery in which there is a killer we have to discover, but rather a mystery in which we have to discover the human sentiment that moves the protagonist and drives all of her actions. I wanted to tell a story that was the tragedy of our day.
MM: Irena remains closed off to the audience, even when we know what has happened to her. Is she intended to be a tragic heroine, who inspires more pity than affection?
GT: I think the basic idea was to narrate this character through the inability of the audience to grasp what her basic sense was—to constantly destabilize the audience in their expectations of this character. Whether to judge her more positively or whether to judge her more negatively—this sort of remains up in the air. Our inability to have a very safe, secure, stable distinction between good on the one hand, and evil on the other. Irena is a woman who has suffered great violence in her life, and she is now also using violence, so in a sense she is a mixture of both this good and this evil, and the audience is stuck with the problem of which one to give more weight to. When we discover what the tragedy of her life is, it is something that inspires, not compassion, but comprehension.