Dir/scr: Giuseppe Tornatore. It-Fr. 2006. 121mins.

Giuseppe Tornatore hashardly set world cinema alight in the 18 years since the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso.But although it's far from perfect, TheUnknown, the Sicilian director's first film in six years at least has thedramatic substance that lacked in style exercises like Malena (2000) and The Legend Of The PianistOn The Ocean (1998).

A contemporary emotionalthriller with Hitchcockian overtones, it is marred bya rather crass vein of melodrama that tips over into moral dishonesty at somepoints (as when it tries both to shock and titillate in its depiction of thetreatment of Eastern European sex slaves). But as a thriller it presses most ofthe right buttons, and it's a technically lavish product, with a lushorchestral soundtrack that must stand as one of the late-period highlights of Ennio Morricone's long career.

Opening in Italy on October 20on a healthy but not huge 300 copies, this energetically-marketed film shouldwin back some of the consensus that Tornatore haslost among local audiences over the last decade.

Foreign buyers are alreadybiting, with sales to six territories added to an already inked Japanese dealduring the Rome Fest's three-day Business Street event. Commercially smart despiteits lack of big-name acting talent, this could turn out to be Tornatore's most successful export since Paradiso.

The film opens unpromisinglyin soft-porn, Tinto-Brass mode with a garish scene inwhich three leggy girls pose in their undies in whatlooks like an abandoned station. Then we cut to present-day Trieste, the rathergrey port city on Italy's north- eastern border. Troubled young Ukrainianimmigrant Irina (Russian actress KseniaRappoport) is looking for work. She asks the porterof a bourgeois condo in a smart area of town if he can help her out - and inexchange for a cut of her salary, he finds her a job cleaning the stairs.

Soon Irinahas befriended the nanny and home help of the Adachers(Claudia Gerini and PierfrancescoFavino), a well-off but disunited couple ofgoldsmiths with a flat in the apartment block.

When the nanny meets with anot very accidental accident on the stairs, Irinareplaces her, learning to drive over a weekend so that she can take the Adacher's young daughter, Tea, to school. She turns out tobe a perfect cook, seamstress, cleaner and child-minder, and soon becomesindispensable to Tea's highly-strung mother Valeria.

It's clear that Irina has an agenda in inveigling herself into the Adachers' lives: this much is made clear by anxiousorchestral chords, tenebrous lighting and by a number of visual hints. It'sobvious too that Irina - severe, unmade up andnun-like in appearance here - is the blonde hooker who appeared in that firstscene, and who appears in a number of subsequent flashbacks that juxtaposebrutal but lecherously-lit S&M sex (the fact that these are mostlysubliminal does not make them any less offensive) with schmaltzy scenesfeaturing Irina's innocent love affair with a toughbut tender market stallholder.

The denoument,when it comes, is stark as Vertigo orChinatown - and should have been leftthat way, without the feelgood coda which thedirector tacks on.

Tornatore has none of Almodovar'sskill of giving even the most sentimental scene dramatic muscle; butthankfully, the slush is sparingly dosed out in The Unknown, which is more interested in the dark, obsessive sideof the human psyche. This dark side is at its most edgy in a couple ofdisturbing but compelling scenes in which Irina tiesTea up and pushes her over repeatedly to teach her how to fall properly (Teaconveniently suffers from an illness that suppresses the usual instinctivedefence mechanisms): for shame that the parallel with Irina'sown bondage, beatings and growing resilience in her former life as a hooker areso unsubtly pushed home.

Though the effort of gettingher lines out in decent Italian sometimes appears to distract Ksenia Rappoport, she turns in anemotionally honest performance as a woman haunted by the ghosts of her past, whilealso somehow cursed in her dealings with others.

The casting of veteranactor-director Michele Placido as Muffa,her former pimp, is less successful: there's something irrepressibly good-naturedin Placido's manner that makes it difficult to accepthim as the embodiment of pure evil.

Cinematographer Fabio Zamarion uses slow zooms (a tad too many) and chiaroscurolighting to rack up the tension. But the most impressive technical credit is Morricone's score, a fine example of moody thriller musicin the best classical tradition.

Production companies/backers
Medusa Film
Manigolda Film

International sales
Adriana Chiesa Enterprises

Italian distribution

Executive producer
Laura Fattori

Fabio Zamarion

Massimo Quaglia

Production design
Tonino Zera

Ennio Morricone

Main cast
Ksenia Rappoport
Michele Placido
Claudia Gerini
Alessandro Haber
Pierfrancesco Favino
Clara Dossena