By Nick Dawson
For some foreign auteurs, the films that American distributors deem appealing to Stateside audiences radically affects our perception of them as artists. Often one or two movies will come to define them in viewers' minds, though that image may be incomplete. Mention the name Giuseppe Tornatore and you think immediately of that paean to the movies, Cinema Paradiso (1988), and then three other nostalgia-tinged remembrances of an Italy now long gone, The Star Maker (1995), The Legend of 1900 (1998) and Malèna (2000).
All of this makes The Unknown Woman - Tornatore's latest film and first since 2000 - surprising viewing: it is gritty, (almost) completely devoid of sentimentality, and contemporary to the point of being a hot button movie. With parallel narrative strands - past and present - it tells the story of Eastern European beauty Irena (Xenia Rappoport), a prostitute working in Italy for brutal crime boss Muffa (Michele Pacido) who manages to escape him, but at horrific cost. She disappears only to resurface with a new identity and dowdy appearance, plying her trade as a cleaning lady while desperately trying to reclaim what she can of her lost life.
The method of splitting the story into two time strands is hardly a new idea and initially The Unknown Woman seems in danger of becoming a little hackneyed. However, gradually Tornatore engages us emotionally with Irena's plight, keeping us on our toes as the plot begins to unravel. Despite the modernity of the story elements, Tornatore's film feels indebted to Hitchcock, with Irena's obsession driving the film into ever darker and more disturbing territory.
Last December, I met with Tornatore during a brief promotional trip to New York and tried to connect the dots between much of his previous work and this latest effort. We also discussed his all-consuming love of cinema, the strong female figures in his films, and his long-running working partnership with Ennio Morricone.
Most people know you from films like Cinema Paradiso, The Starmaker and Malèna and so for many audiences this film seems to be a change of direction for you.
To a certain extent, I've made other films in the past that have been radical departures but perhaps they are not so well known here. For example, my film A Pure Formality is completely different from what I had been doing up until that point. You could say that I'm a guy who likes to change, I like zigzagging my way through the genres. I don't always succeed but in this particular film, which is starting to resonate with a certain success, that success might make people think of a radical change, but will that correspond to the truth? Is that something that I'm going to stay with? Not necessarily, because I'll continue to zigzag. For me, it's fun.
The Unknown Woman has a contemporary relevance because of the plot element of the European sex slave trade. Was this an important issue for you to discuss?
You could say that I was almost forced to discuss this, in the sense that my original idea had been taken from the news, the story of a woman who had given birth to children for payment and after had tried to get them back. This was my original idea but later, in seeing the reality of today, I saw that this is something that is happening all the time in the background of our world, especially with regard to the exploitation of Eastern European girls and the sex trade, the exploitation of their bodies for the purpose of producing babies for sale. So, in a sense, I could not not make this film, in which I connected this modern reality to the original idea for the story.
Going back to what you were saying about zigzagging, with these different styles and tones, how easy is it to find that different voice as you move from place to place?
I wouldn't say that it's easy; the only thing that I do know is that it's something that I need to do, because whenever I do a film which has a different theme or a different style it's as if I was doing my debut film. You could say that I have the complex of the debut film. I love to be always doing my first film, because when you're doing your first film your gaze is much more cautious and you're much more afraid. And fear is a very creative emotion, which is why I always try to attempt these different styles, these different moves, because fear is so creative. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't, but what it always does is gives me new energy, new curiosity, new fear, new roads to travel, and this is very good for my creative health.
You said just now that you succeed sometimes, but sometimes you don't. How do you judge what is a success - because of a public or critical reaction, or purely by your own standards?
No, according to my own standards, because sometimes I was not able to change completely, sometimes I made films that were not different enough from other films that I had made.
Do you try to look at those mistakes and try and work out why they happened and think of ways to use what you have learned from them to help you in the future?
When I was talking about "sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't," what I meant was that I am not always able to zigzag. So I wasn't talking about mistakes - we all make mistakes, and I make them, too. When I am able to understand a mistake that I have made, my being aware of that helps me to avoid that in the future; when I'm not aware of that, of course, I run the risk of repeating it.
To give you a very simple example of a mistake, once I made a film called The Star Maker, and the ending that I imagined for the film was an ending that was filled with hope. But I wasn't able to shoot that ending because I ran out of money, so therefore I shot a different ending without that hope, an ending that was more dramatic and more dark. And this was a mistake, because the film was well-loved throughout the world, but everyone suffered because of this ending, because it didn't offer a ray of hope, because that is what people like at the end of a dramatic film. It was a mistake for me because I should have stuck it out more to try to attain the resources I needed to shoot the ending the way I wanted it. This is a simple example of a mistake, but there are more complex ones.
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