By Francesco Pascuzzi.

Already with the film’s title, Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta, 2005) sets out to toy with the audience’s perspective and its perception of the lead character Irena (Ksenia Rappoport). When the protagonist arrives in town[1] and lands herself some menial work in an upscale residential building, her motives appear somewhat suspicious. Even though her generic Eastern European accent gives up her foreignness, the character’s origin is unclear, and her intentions are, too: she is indeed completely unknown to the viewers and to the other characters as well. Through the course of the film, we learn that Irena is a former prostitute in search of the child she had with her late boyfriend Nello (Paolo Elmo), a baby girl she was forced to relinquish to an adoption black market run by her pimp Muffa (Michele Placido). We also learn that she believes she has found the child in Tea (Clara Dossena), the adoptive daughter of Valeria and Donato Adacher (Claudia Gerini and Pierfrancesco Favino), a wealthy couple of goldsmiths who live and run their business in town.

The choice of Russian-born actor Ksenia Rappoport as the film’s leading presence, according to Giovanna Faleschini-Lerner, in itself does not simply aim to muddle the film’s narrative or confront the audience with vague issues of foreignness: Rappoport is more exactly configured as “an instrument of destabilization of notions of italianità,” whose extra-diegetic purpose is to create a form of spectatorial anxiety which “also encompasses the subversion of gender roles that the characters enact and exposes the overlap that exists between gender identity and concepts of otherness” (Faleschini-Lerner 2013: 9). In other words, Rappoport’s foreignness operates as a pointed tool in the narrative enterprise to complicate spectatorial expectations vis-à-vis both her exotic origin and her femininity, in that those expectations are often informed and shaped by pre-existing bias or stereotypical, racially-tinged perceptions: as a transnational presence, Irena is invading the filmic space much like droves of immigrants have invaded Italy’s geographical space. Moreover, Irena’s infiltration into the italianità monolith is rendered irreversible and thereby even more threatening by the fact that she gives birth to children who are then taken from her and anonymously given up for adoption, becoming absorbed into the social fabric of the nation in a process that legalizes and expunges their otherness. The character is then to be primarily understood as a vessel of ethnic reconfiguration, which the movie portrays as a highly problematic yet ultimately unavoidable process.

2-1However, I posit that the film not only grapples with issues of national identity and social anxiety related to immigration, but also with issues of personal identity in connection with ideas of mothering and mourning. Irena is as fluid a signifier for otherness as she is one for motherhood: the film slowly but methodically proceeds to dismantle or corrupt both the gender and the role expectations normatively associated with the mother ideal in ways that make the character’s foreignness but one of many facets in the process, connecting it with deeper issues related to the experience of grieving a loss and to the other mother figure in the movie, Valeria (who is in fact Italian and played by an Italian actor). On the surface, the movie sets out to investigate the heterogeneous ways in which motherhood may be readily understood, asking the audience to decide whether Irena should be considered Tea’s mother regardless of the biological connection that might – or might not – link the two characters, or whether Valeria can claim motherhood rights over Tea by virtue of having adopted and raised her. However, Irena’s forced denial of her own identity as mother does not simply call into question what it means to be a mother: I argue that it ultimately also implicates a process of self-mourning and self-restructuring.

MS_TRL_The_Unknown_Woman_14_13853The Unknown Woman’s interest in matters of identity perception already announces itself in the opening sequence, in which Irena and two other women are shown parading in an enclosed space similar to a run-down stage, naked except for their underwear, as they are being directed and evaluated by a disembodied male voice to walk, turn around and expose themselves. Nothing differentiates the three figures, which have been effectively reduced to their lowest common denominator, as in their unmediated, undesignated, bare physicality. Each woman is wearing the same white mask featuring bright red lips and contoured eyebrows, a generic, pedestrian imitation of femininity, which at once mimics and flattens it. However, there is no transformative power associated with this grotesque masquerade in which the character is involved, nor with the mask itself: Irena is not pretending to be someone else, nor is she putting up a performance for her audience. Her ghostly, anonymous mask is instead conversant with a tradition of plain or ordinary white masks in thriller and horror film tradition,[2] which do not transform, as I mentioned, but instead erase the characters altogether, robbing those who are wearing them of their filmic identity and their humanity by extension, where humanity should be understood both as the physical quality of looking human, and as the ability to experience humanizing feelings and emotions.

CBMKTG7WgAA1a3h.jpg-largeSimilarly, this prop in the film’s opening is meant to underscore that, as an unknown woman, Irena not only comes from an extra-diegetic void but also comes as void herself, as though her identity has been compromised, if not altogether annihilated. This ambiguous sequence is revealed to be a flashback: once the audience is transported into the character’s present, in which we find Irena clad in black aboard a train speeding towards a yet unknown destination, no narrative or chronological connections are offered to place her in a larger diegetic context. There are no clues and no perception of the passing of time, we do not know what was happening to the character in that flashback or what happened to her after it, and we ignore the circumstances that have now set her in motion. The programmatic narrative shrouding of the character’s identity, achieved via the juxtaposition of two different yet equally enigmatic temporal planes, sets the tone of the narration and establishes the fact that Irena is from the very beginning as unknown to the audience as she is unknown – or no longer known – to herself as well.

The complex distribution of flashbacks throughout the entire film deliberately bisects the narrative into past and present as two realms that should be understood as distinct albeit not separate within the context of the plot.[3] However, the filmic past is not arranged in a cohesive pattern until the denouement of the present events converges with it in causative fashion. According to Gilles Deleuze, flashbacks are “a multiplicity of circuits each of which goes through a zone of recollections and returns to an even deeper, even more inexorable, state of the present situation,”[4] and flashbacks in the film are in fact employed to complicate the character’s present in ways that are distressing and even gruesome at times, even if they are not always immediately clear. Tornatore’s use of flashbacks is more exactly comparable to a string of disjointed recollections, some involuntary on Irena’s part, which haunt the character while they progressively clue in the spectator regarding her circumstances. These flashbacks are littered with recollection-images (Deleuze 2010: 50)[5] that offer a cursory glance into Irena’s vicissitudes (Irena’s almost compulsive consumption of strawberries being a prime example of this connective process, as well as a brief sequence in which the act of laying out a suit and her nicest dress on her bed precipitates the character into a powerful sensory reminiscence of her times with Nello), and they link her present efforts to her past struggles, suggesting that she comes from a place and time of trauma, and that this trauma informs who she presently is – or isn’t – even though the narrative actively opts against showing its hand until the very end.

The mystery is obviously supposed to keep the spectators guessing and engaged in the plot: The Unknown Woman does, after all, begin as a character study only to surreptitiously transform into a thriller and, as such, it is supposed to meet the genre’s expectations of a delayed resolution or a twist ending.[6] Yet, as the story advances, it becomes evident that the resolution to the mystery of the identity of Tea’s mother has become a secondary concern for the film, and that the journey upon which the narrative embarks to wrangle together past and present, fragmented memories and scattered flashbacks, a journey which ultimately allows it to reconstruct itself as a cohesive whole, perfectly mirrors Irena’s own journey towards the reclaiming of her own scattered, fragmented self, and the reconstructing of her own identity.

The Unknown Woman’s affinity with Deleuzian visual and diegetic theorizations of time is not strictly limited to the film’s treatment of memory. In the preface to The Time-Image, Deleuze explains that post-World War II cinema has shifted to a portrayal of time that is no longer narrative but fragmented instead, in which the solitary image (the eponymous time-image, as opposed to the old movement-image of classical film) reflects a new, less rational and more contemplative relationship between time and the individual. This distortion was triggered by the changing post-war cultural and physical landscapes, “‘any spaces whatever’, deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, waste ground, cities in the course of demolition and reconstruction” (Deleuze 2010: xi) whose novelty was such that society at large found itself no longer equipped or able to describe, react to and interact with them. It is indeed within this a-chronological, aberrant context in which time is finally disengaged from action that a new class of characters, according to Deleuze, has slowly come to establish themselves: “in these any-spaces-whatever a new race of characters was stirring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, there were seers” (Ibid.).

la-sconosciuta-2Irena is obviously designed as a seer herself: the beginning of the movie strongly underlines the contemplative nature of the character, as she sits awake by her living room window night after night spying into the Adachers’ apartment from the opposite building, for reasons that are yet to be known. However, Irena’s own suspended, inert presence, one that is in and of itself disengaged from both chronological measures and concerns and from spatial relations, makes it possible for the character herself to be read as any-space-whatever, as a filmic signifier of demolition (and later reconstruction), a fragmented entity whose hollowed-out identity rests in a filmic space where not only past and present become infinitely expanded and appear unresolved in relation to each other, but larger matters of selfhood and narrative purpose cannot be conclusively assessed. As flashbacks and present time lose a sense of duration and connection, the film seems to lose its protagonist by establishing the fact that she has become not only unknown but altogether unknowable, an ineffable entity which carries no meaning to the audience because it carries no meaning to herself. However, the film is not quite staging Irena’s ontological dissolution as it is instead methodically mapping out the beginning of a mourning process, one that will also entail a radical overhaul of the film’s conventions both in terms of structure and genre association at large.

As it approaches the 30-minute mark, the narrative architecture of the film is in fact suddenly reconfigured around the protagonist. Irena, who had been up to that point linked to an obscure past of abuse and victimhood via a chaotic series of fractured, disturbing flashbacks, unexpectedly becomes herself a perpetrator of violence. After exchanging a few casual words on the stairs with Gina (Piera Degli Esposti), the nanny working for the Adacher family, Irena is informed by the woman that little Tea has a neurological disorder that numbs her reflexes and makes her incapable of physically shielding herself from harm and injuries. This piece of information, seemingly as random as any, leaves the protagonist disconcerted and triggers an unpredictable response: Irena unceremoniously trips and shoves the elderly woman down the stairwell, incapacitating her for life.

This twist carries a two-fold purpose within the film: on the one hand, it conclusively designates a link between Irena and Tea, suggesting that the latter is the reason for the former’s mysterious arrival into town; on the other hand, it establishes the film’s broader indifference towards generic narrative structures, while cutting across expected spectator responses.[7] Viewers are abruptly made aware of the fact that the character which functions as their entry point in the narrative is not as helpless as she had appeared up to that moment, and Irena’s own presence in Tea’s life acquires an alarming and threatening complexion as a result. This sequence informs us that this will not be the maudlin story of a distraught mother happily reunited with her child, and that the central mother character is as determined and headstrong as she is sinister and unfavorable. As a matter of fact, the film itself is altogether uninterested in staging any familiar plots in melodramatic fashion, opting instead to continuously unravel or collapse the narrative in counterintuitive fashion. As Gina, an elderly, defenseless, perfectly friendly and likable woman comes crashing down the stairs, all our expectations vis-à-vis the diegesis follow suit.

More importantly still, that unwarranted assault is the catalyzing event of a proper character overhaul: in diegetic terms, it allows Irena to interview for and land the job as the new nanny to Tea left vacant by Gina, a turn of events which proves to be the very reason for the attack in the first place. However, it also complicates the status of the character within the narrative and, as I mentioned above, that of the film itself within its genre’s parameters. Irena, up to that point a seer, a passive, spectral, self-effacing presence, is reconstructed anew as an active, menacing mother figure, a designation that puts the character at oxymoronic odds with itself, and with the viewer: “Although the audience sympathizes with Irena as a victim, this empathy is countered by the ethical questionability of her actions, which place the viewer in an uncomfortable position of uncertainty,” explains Giovanna Faleschini-Lerner, who then adds, “[t]his uneasiness is deepened by the ambiguity of Irena’s relationship with Tea, by the uncertainty of her belonging. […] Neither the viewer nor Irena will discover the truth until she is accused of causing the death of Tea’s mother […] in a car accident” (2013: 11). Whether directly or indirectly (Valeria is in fact killed by Muffa, who staged the accident as a set-up for the protagonist to exact revenge for his attempted murder at her hands), Irena as a mother is a counterintuitive vessel of instability, permutation, mourning, and even death.

2“Ho fatto tanti errori, una vita non mi basta per pagarli tutti” (“I’ve made so many mistakes that one life isn’t enough to pay for all of them”), Irena briefly reflects midway through the film, as she casually reminisces about her past. This line, as self-deprecatory as it is apparently throwaway, conceals instead one of the main ideas embedded in the narrative, that of motherhood as a means of self-renewal. Irena’s awareness that her life has essentially been compromised beyond redemption by her poor choices and the abuse of others is the driving force in her pursuit to track down her daughter, a pursuit that on a superficial level is supposed to afford her the chance to reclaim the child that has been taken away from her, but also afford her the chance to reclaim Tea as an extension of her own selfhood. I would like to posit that the film is in fact presenting Tea as the Baudrillardian hyperreal,[8] a copy/daughter that is more real than the original/mother, and as such an opportunity at redemption as well as a vessel of self-renewal for Irena. If, as Irena volunteers, one life is indeed not enough to pay for her mistakes, the experience of mothering Tea and her investment in the bettering of her child’s life are to be understood as a motherly effort as much as a process meant to expunge her past as she molds the future of someone else’s – as in, that of a more perfect copy of herself. In light of this, the revelation at the end of the film that Irena had been forced to give up nine children over the course of twelve years allows the narrative to establish just how irreparably removed from her selfhood as mother the protagonist really is.

To further complicate matters, much of the film’s ambiguity is situated in the uncertainty regarding Tea and Irena’s supposed biological relationship, even though the spectators are pressed to immediately recognize the resemblance between the two as a marker of their kinship, since they both sport the same exact brown, curly, voluminous hair. The fact that the two characters look like mother and daughter more than Valeria and Tea do can easily be read as a directorial cue for the viewers to establish conclusively that Irena’s pursuit has been successful, and that she has indeed managed to track down one of her children at last. The film however ultimately moves to debunk this assumption/expectation as well, when at the end the viewers are informed that Tea is in fact unrelated to Irena, and that Muffa had come up with the adoptive family’s last name he had given her by reading it off his golden necklace, evidently crafted and signed by the Adachers and pointedly shaped as a spiral that resembles a maze, a circular, labyrinthine structure that will in fact cause Irena to lose herself. By the time that revelation is offered, though, Irena and Tea have indeed formed a bond so tight and meaningful that, as the movie posits, the lack of a biological link between the two no longer matters.

kuddIn light of the idea of self-renewal I have introduced, it is not surprising that the event that jumpstarts Irena’s entrance in Tea’s life is Gina’s revelation about the little girl’s condition. Upon learning that Tea is defenseless against injury and pain, Irena cuts all pleasantries short, gets rid of Gina, and immediately sets her plan into motion, as though she perceives that condition to be some sort of inherited birth defect of which she must rid her presumed daughter. Irena, a victim of unrelenting abuse for most of her life, simply cannot stand the idea that her offspring be defined by victimhood and defenselessness as well, and her project of self-renewal through Tea cannot subsume either. Once Irena is able to win Tea over after some initial wariness, the protagonist engages her in a game which Tea jokingly labels the salami game: Irena ties the little girl up with belts and straps until she is almost encased, and completely unable to bend or move her arms. The woman then proceeds to push and shove Tea around the room, causing her to fall down on the hardwood floor (covered in pillows and blankets at first, then bare) and ordering her to pick herself back up, shoving her down again as soon as she is able to do so.

The game immediately stops being fun for Tea, and the little girl screams and protests as Irena first asks her, and then yells, “Alzati! Da sola!” (“Get back up! On your own!”) with increasing urgency and anger. At first, Tea struggles to balance herself and get back up, but slowly and steadily learns to do so. More importantly, Tea’s instinctive slapping of Irena’s face as soon as she is free to move her hands again shows the will to fight back and stand up for herself that had always eluded the protagonist. In reshaping Tea’s reaction to violence and to feelings of powerlessness, Irena begins to reshape herself and her own past by correcting what caused it to go astray: in a significant and revelatory feat of non-synchronous jump cut editing, images of Tea being shoved by Irena and falling to the ground are interwoven and interspersed with random images from Irena’s past, as she is being shoved around and into the ground by Muffa or a john, naked, bruised, bleeding but, unlike Tea, unable to get back up.

Tea, who is hurt and understandably resentful and upset at first, slowly comes to appreciate or at least understand the goal of the game, and the purpose of Irena’s intentions and actions; in the face of her adoptive mother’s attitude, which seems to suggest the idea that Valeria is completely resigned to her daughter being handicapped and helpless, the little girl finds herself increasingly drawn to her nanny, whom she perceives as someone who believes she can overcome her disability, and who is pro-actively trying to help her do so. The narrative of transformation which structures The Unknown Woman starts to take form at this point, once the film conclusively establishes Irena’s pursuit of motherhood as a pursuit of self-renewal, and once Tea’s struggle to overcome her disorder comes to represent Irena’s struggle to amend her own past.

This interest in the transformative power of motherhood falls in line with and is supported by Daphne De Marneffe’s theories on mothering. Drawing on Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering (originally published in 1978, revised and republished in 1999), a study that set out to explore and explain the social, political and economic reasons why women still inherit and/or assume the role of primary caretakers for their children, in Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (2005) De Marneffe analyzes the so-called mother-infant merger phenomenon, according to which “the earliest relationship of an infant to his or her caretaker – almost always a mother – is characterized by a sense of merger or oneness” (2004: 67). De Marneffe argues that the mother-child relationships “do not follow a linear progression from fusion to autonomy; rather, feelings of oneness and separateness oscillate through life” (Ibid.). This notion is further qualified and complicated in the film through Irena, whose separateness has been coerced upon her time and time again, ultimately damaging her sense of oneness not simply in terms of her non-existent relationship with any of her children, but in the very ability to understand herself as complete within herself without them.

tumblr_inline_mfujigTa7x1qkgml8In one of the film’s final and most affecting scenes, Irena visits Tea in a hospital. At this point, Irena has been arrested for accidentally murdering Muffa, and Tea, differently abandoned by both her bureaucratic mother and her affective one, has ended up in the hospital because of her inappetence, and she is refusing to feed herself or to be fed. Irena is brought in from jail to try to get through to the child and, in a matter of minutes after getting reacquainted, she is in fact able to feed her some soup. Tea inquires about Irena’s sudden departure, and Irena vaguely answers that she found a new job that will keep her away for some time. Irena then urges Tea to learn to write as soon as possible, and to write her all about “come ci si sente a diventare donne” (“what it feels like to become a woman”). “Dovresti saperlo” (“You should know”), Tea quips back. “Io sono stata troppo distratta nella mia vita, non me ne sono accorta” (“I’ve been too distracted in my life, I didn’t notice”), Irena explains. On the one hand, this brief exchange encapsulates Irena’s expectations vis-à-vis her pursuit of Tea, which she had already confessed to Valeria: her intention was simply to get to be part of the child’s life and to see her grow up, rather than attempt to take her away from her adoptive parents. On the other hand, Irena’s comment also encapsulates her own expectations vis-à-vis her self-renewal through the mothering of Tea: based on that very principle of oneness, the little girl’s future is supposed to fulfill what has been irreparably compromised in Irena’s past, and in her path towards womanhood Tea shall set out to rectify Irena’s own path, which had instead gone irreparably astray.

The film’s faceted take on motherhood is further embodied and exemplified by the stark contrast between Valeria and Irena, and by the differing dispositions the two characters show in both the mothering of Tea and in the ways in which they perceive themselves as mothers. Valeria is a wealthy, self-employed professional with the economic and intellectual means to be completely self-sufficient. She is young, attractive and stylish, and she has fashioned a seemingly well-rounded existence for herself, in which the perfunctory fulfilling of her daily activities is carried out in efficient, emotionless fashion, resembling a bullet point list not unlike the one she recites to Irena robotically and managerially as the two go over the latter’s duties as the new nanny/housekeeper. While Valeria’s identity appears to encompass her agency as an independent woman and her professional image as a jewelry maker, both of which she cultivates proficiently, it does not appear to extend to the mothering of her adoptive daughter, or to the carrying out of any motherly duties for that matter. Valeria’s agency as mother goes insofar as the bureaucratic steps that had to be completed for her and her husband to be able to adopt a child, but the film purposely almost never captures the character in the company of Tea, and when it does, there is no real significance to their exchanges. The fact that Valeria could not bear children in the first place seems to be a pointed, almost fatalist nod to the fact that she was altogether not meant to be a mother (a rather pointed characterization that, as we will see, is almost perfectly reversed in the unfolding of Irena’s vicissitudes).[9] Valeria’s idea of motherhood is indeed to be understood as nothing more than a performance, one which she has undertaken as a part of a larger project of self-completion perhaps because it is socially demanded and expected of her, or perhaps simply because it appears as an appropriate addition to her status. However, the fact remains that Valeria is in fact never mother because she does not understand herself as one, and because she is never interested in re-structuring herself as one.

As a result, the character delegates the actual mothering of her daughter to her nannies, first Gina and then Irena, as she goes about furthering her business and her social and economic clout with it; when she is faced with the revelation that Irena may be Tea’s biological mother towards the end of the film, Valeria has nothing to offer to the protagonist but angry threats that she is Tea’s mother because all the paperwork related to the adoption is in order, which according to her makes her “la madre a tutti gli effetti” (“the mother to all effects and purposes”). To make her point even more compelling, Valeria confiscates all the pictures of Tea and her drawings from Irena’s apartment, evidently convinced that she will be able to sever all ties between the protagonist and the little girl by removing the physical and material objects that connote both their relationship and the affection they feel for each other. In this loaded and intense sequence, Valeria flaunts her daughter as her property, an item which she has lawfully purchased and thereby belongs to her, but she does not once volunteer or argue for the affective, motherly bond that one would expect her to share with Tea.

Valeria’s ambiguity as a destabilizing mother figure is further reinforced by the film’s portrayal of her relationship with her husband Donato, who partners with her in a successful business venture which, however, does not appear to quite translate into a successful marriage. Most of the exchanges between the two characters devolve in fact into screaming matches in which neither is actively trying to listen to the other, much to Tea’s chagrin. Moreover, Valeria is seen surreptitiously sneaking out at night early in the film, in a brief scene that suggests that she might be having an extra-marital affair, an indiscretion of which Donato appears to be aware. As a vacant mother and wife, Valeria is filmically imagined as a character which functions against the stability of her family unit, making Irena by contrast an even more prominent unifying figure in the narrative.

unknown woman valeria theaValeria is socially and bureaucratically a mother, but she does not understand herself as one. As a result, the mothering of Tea is not in any way conducive or altogether relevant to the preservation of the character’s identity: it in fact seems to matter only insofar as her social status is concerned. Irena, who instead is not a mother in any socially recognized or bureaucratic terms but strongly and intimately understands herself as one, needs the experience of mothering Tea to be able to amend and restructure her damaged identity. The protagonist’s sincere final admission that the ultimate purpose of her pursuit of the little girl was the fulfillment of her dream to be able to bear witness to her formative years and perhaps be an ancillary part of her life, rather than to drag her adoptive parents to court to have the adoption overturned, ultimately exposes the fact that Irena does not perceive the meaning of motherhood in the bureaucratic sense in which Valeria does, but in diametrically opposite terms. Irena does not need a stack of documents to understand herself as mother, while Valeria’s status as mother is entirely bound to her legal effort and the paperwork that defines her as such. This disengagement from materialistic signifiers of motherhood is further reinforced by Irena’s seemingly counterintuitive reaction to Valeria’s outburst in the sequence I have analyzed above, in which Valeria’s opaque anger and her instinctual reaction to deprive Irena of Tea’s drawings and pictures leave Irena collectedly puzzled rather than angered or hurt. Even more significantly, by turning down a monetary deal Irena categorically demystifies Valeria’s assumption that she had arrived in town seeking compensation in exchange for her silence about Tea. Motherhood is an intrinsic component of Irena’s identity makeup, and the film reinforces the notion that her understanding and experience of motherhood are not bound to or defined by objects and paper, be they money, a child’s drawings, or legal paperwork.

The most significant aspect of Irena’s process of self-renewal, and arguably the very impetus for it, is the way in which the character experiences mourning both on a conscious and on a subconscious level. Death and loss are presented in the film as the leitmotif of Irena’s life, and variously embedded in the narrative as the murder of Nello (killed by Muffa because he wanted to marry Irena and take her away from him), but also the loss of all of her children sold to the adoption black market (rendered even more final by the fact that the strain of all those pregnancies on Irena’s body has rendered her unable to bear any more children), and the loss and subsequent reclaiming of Irena’s identity within the film itself. Fittingly enough, Irena wears black throughout the entirety of the filmic events set in the present time, a pointed choice which should be taken as a visual nod to her state as a mourner, but also as a symbol of the character’s inscrutability, her diegetic non-presence. Irena mourns the physical losses of Nello and of her children as much as she is subconsciously mourning the self that was irremediably compromised as a result of those losses, and no longer exists as it was understood before they took place.

This experience of self-mourning is thereby an inevitable trigger of an identity collapse, in the sense that it asks of the character to reassess her shattered understanding of herself to account for those losses in order to craft a new identity that is not devoid of them or altogether independent from them, but one that is informed anew by them: one may in fact never stop grieving a loss but, through the experience of mourning, the loss triggers a process of identity reassessment in which it is absorbed and metabolized as part of one’s renewed identity makeup. My theorization about the nature of mourning as portrayed in the film appears to lie outside the scope and concern of contemporary scholarship on the subject matter: in The Ends of Mourning (2003: 1), Alessia Ricciardi explains that mourning has undergone a “radical devaluation […] in the culture of present day.” Citing Philippe Ariès, Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, Ricciardi maps out a tradition which variously grapples with the cultural role of mourning, often viewed as a social or collective experience; however, it does not necessarily consider the nature itself of mourning and the role of the individual in the experience.

dae475080f8a050ea2466e59d17366d4The Unknown Woman’s non-chronological, a-historical treatment of its lead character and her circumstances invites instead a different reflection on the nature of mourning, one that places Irena’s personal, subjective journey of reshaping and experience of grief at the forefront instead. Irena’s past and her memories are certainly not fetishized in the film, nor do they represent a diegetic realm to which the character willfully retreats as a way to escape the present: even the character’s memories of Nello have been irreparably tainted by the knowledge that she was to some extent responsible for his death. On the contrary, Irena is actively working to undo and correct her past, and the film imagines it just as splintered, scattered and fractured as her reminiscing of it is; moreover, the film goes one step further in suggesting that Irena’s work to amend her past is indissolubly linked to the work she is doing to grapple with her grief, as the process of mourning her losses is linked to the process of reshaping herself into a mother in ways that are not immediately clear, but definitely worth assessing. As intimated above, I argue that The Unknown Woman’s treatment of mourning mobilizes a prominent involvement of the self in the process of mourning that the scholarship on the subject matter has not thoroughly acknowledged, with the exception of Judith Butler’s theorizations regarding grieving and mourning, which I intend to further qualify in connection to Irena’s filmic circumstances. In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004: 21), Butler explains that “[p]erhaps one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever (sic),” and, further, that when we experience mourning,

“something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us […] When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost ‘you’ only to discover that ‘I’ have gone missing as well.” (Ibid.: 22)

Implicit in this idea of going missing or losing oneself, I believe, is then a process of self-mourning and of subsequent, necessary self-reconfiguration. If, as Butler convincingly argues, “we’re undone by each other” (Ibid.: 23) the loss of someone else also brings about the loss of oneself, a loss of which the subject might not be thoroughly aware, but one which she mourns and subconsciously moves to absorb. In establishing this trajectory, I am not necessarily adopting a Freudian viewpoint concerning the interpretation of the grieving act.[10] I more accurately claim that while one might never stop mourning a specific loss, that loss is charged with a power which Butler would call “transformative” (Ibid.: 21) in the sense that it asks of the subject to rethink herself anew in light of the experience of losing, because what was lost was an intrinsic part of the subject’s identity build. One’s project of identity reassessment, as informed by mourning, cannot take place unless the subject is able to craft a new identity layout that is comprehensive of the loss of the object just as it once was of the existence of said object.

The dynamics of this process are thoughtfully rendered in The Unknown Woman’s closing sequence. It is fair to assume at this point that at least fifteen years have passed since the date of Irena’s imprisonment, based both on the ageing of the protagonist herself and the fact that Tea appears now to be approaching her twenties. Unsurprisingly, upon being released from jail, Irena is still wearing unadorned black clothes, a pointed choice suggesting her still ongoing experience as a mourner. The appearance of an adult Tea in the distance, however, does more than simply redeem Irena for the audience in a neatly organized happy ending. Tea has grown up to retain her uncanny resemblance to a younger Irena; moreover, she seems happy, healthy and well-adjusted. The two characters do not exchange any words, but simply nod and smile at each other, indicating the fact that the years apart have not dulled their bond. As she reciprocates Tea’s gaze from a distance, Irena at once realizes that not only her mothering of Tea, as unorthodox as it might have been, was ultimately successful, but that through the person smiling back at her, almost like a mirror image, she was indeed able to wipe the slate clean and finally reclaim her own past for herself.

Francesco Pascuzzi teaches at Rutgers University, New Jersey (USA).


Baudrillard, Jean (1994), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Butler, Judith (2004), Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London & New York: Verso.

Deleuze, Gilles (2010), Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

De Marneffe, Daphne (2004), Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life, New York: Back Bay Books.

Faleschini-Lerner, Giovanna (2013), “Ksenia Rappoport and Transnational Stardom in Contemporary Cinema,” Journal of Italian Cinema and Media Studies, Vol. 1, No.1, pp. 7-20.

Freud, Sigmund (1962), The Ego and the Id, New York: W.W. Norton.

____ (1956-1974), Mourning and Melancholia in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London: The Hogarth Press. Retrieved online at english.upenn.edu: pp. 243-258.

Hicks, Neill D. (2002), Writing the Thriller Film: The Terror Within, Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions.

Oakley, Todd (2009), Toward a General Theory of Film Spectatorship, Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University.

Ricciardi, Alessia (2003), The Ends of Mourning: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Film, Stanford: California University Press.


[1] The film is set in a fictional city in northern Italy called Velarchi, even though it was shot on location in Trieste and Rome. Tornatore wanted the setting for the film to be familiar but not immediately recognizable, as a way to universalize the themes engaged by the narrative.

[2] See for example Eyes Without a Face (directed by Georges Franju, 1960), The Facep of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966), Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980), Scream (Wes Craven, 1996), The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008), The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011).

[3] Furthermore, the film employs two different types of flashbacks in stylistically set apart by the way in which they are photographed. Irena’s experiences as a prostitute are photographed in dark, dirty and oppressive tones whereas the flashbacks which capture Irena’s love story with Nello are bright and over-exposed (the emotional use of the camera is clearly meant as a nod to Irena’s differing disposition under those diametrically opposed circumstances). The palette of flashback photography converges with that of the present once Irena finds Nello’s dead body in the dumpster in a flashback while Muffa’s corpse (Irena’s former pimp) is unearthed by the police in the present, settling into a grey hue which numbs and weighs down the visuals for the remainder of the film, except for the ending sequence which is again sunny and bright.

[4] Deleuze’s discussion of flashbacks and their meaning is contained in the second chapter of Cinema 2: The Time-Image (2010: 48).

[5] Recollection-images, according to Deleuze, stand in relation to other images and because of this, these images are more readily interpreted as signs, or mnemo-signs as he calls them, which are summoned by actual images as witnessed in the present. Deleuze argues that a successful use of flashbacks is carried out in deterministic terms: the story must need flashbacks if its circumstances cannot be exhausted in the present, and each flashback must inform the present further on every return, and be visually linked to it.

[6] Neill D. Hicks (2002) describes the genre’s expectations and overarching structure at length.

[7] In Toward a General Theory of Film Spectatorship (2009), Todd Oakley discusses the cognitive processes that spectators apply to film to often guess or anticipate plot twists and developments, and also the spectators’ expectations towards the diegesis.

[8] In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard explains that society today has arrived to replace reality (and all real meaning by extension) with symbols, making life not reality but rather a simulation of reality. Because of this, symbols implicitly prove that reality itself is no longer necessary to craft an understanding of the human experience; reality and simulation thus cease to be regulated by an order of dependence. In other words, in a world where it has become increasingly challenging to discriminate between original and copy and the copy inherently represents the attempt to ameliorate the original – thus coming to epitomize the hyperreal – the reproduction is to be considered more real than the original, and the original may come to cease to have meaning, or to exist altogether.

[9] Valeria’s gruesome death appears within the context of the narrative to represent a punishment of sorts for the very fact that she is an aberrant mother. Irena, herself somewhat of an aberrant mother (but not one as unredeemable as Valeria), is not killed but arguably assigned a lesser punishment by being sentenced to serve jail time at the end of the movie for reasons that are left unclear (her lawyer, played by Margherita Buy, tells her that the judge “couldn’t overlook everything,” even though she arguably killed Muffa in self-defense and she was never formally charged with or even found responsible for Gina’s assault, leaving some ambiguity as to what “everything” might be referring). In a sense, one may even argue that such an unconventional mother character is used by Tornatore to ultimately reinforce a more traditional and commonly accepted mother stereotype. In general, a few of Tornatore’s female characters are variously punished for being aberrant or different or non-conforming: see also Beata in The Star Maker (L’uomo delle stelle, 1995), Malèna in Malèna (2000), and Claire in The Best Offer (La migliore offerta, 2013) as examples of this trend.

[10] According to Freud, mourning is a melancholic experience of which substitution and incorporation are necessary components. By incorporation, Freud describes an action whereby the subject takes into and retains within himself objects from the external world. At first, Freud (in Mourning and Melancholia, 1917) explained that mourning comes to an end when the subject is able to cut all ties with the loss and find a new object into which invest the libido that was freed up in the process. Later (in The Ego and the Id, 1923) he revised his theory to explain that incorporation is an integral component of mourning, allowing for the assumption that mourning might be an endless enterprise.

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