First, the good news: Giuseppe Tornatore’s latest movie doesn’t offer the kind of second-rate De Sica humanism smothered in Torani syrup that’s become synonymous with the Italian director’s name since Cinema Paradiso. In fact, after The Unknown Woman’s intro—an icky callback to Eyes Wide Shut’s baroque orgy—you may even wonder if another filmmaker that shares Tornatore’s name is calling the shots. It’s Hitchcock who’s the touchstone in this story of a mysterious Ukrainian maid (Rappoport), and the Sicilian liberally lifts from the suspense master’s playbook. Vertigo-inducing shots of spiral stairwells and meticulously edited stalking sequences are reproduced in bulk; even Ennio Morricone’s menacing score recalls Bernard Herrmann’s work for the portly Brit. The more you find out about why this servant is slowly insinuating her way into the lives of a middle-class family, the more you reluctantly submit to the movie’s surprisingly well-executed manipulations.
The bad news, however, is that Tornatore is unable to sustain tension once the heroine’s agenda is revealed halfway through, and what follows veers between ploddingly dull and unintentionally risible. Even Rappoport’s cunning, feral performance isn’t enough to patch up a script full of ever-widening holes, and when Michele Placido’s scenery-chomping thug shows up, all of your goodwill immediately goes ciao.