A little hard to follow and a little hard to swallow, this film by the director of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is gritty and loose. A dark controlled chaos in skilled hands, it feels like an army of films rushing at you all at once. It's a bit overwhelming until the grabs you, sucks you in and won't let you go performance of Xenia Rappoport kicks in. She's a magnet in the middle of a mysterious mayhem. It's too bad that the style and substance of the film will prevent it from ever becoming popular because her portrayal of suffering and sheer determination is one for the history books. The woman's got chops. She moves like an insect through the undergrowth of her seedy milieu with an androgynous, unkempt beauty that's both tempting and invisible. She's able to shift her portrayal from one emotion to another, and then another, without moving a muscle in her face--a skill few actors possess. It's her story and we follow her through it not knowing exactly what she's after or what she will do with it when she seems to have it in her grasp. That's the unknown part and Rappoport plays the mystery for all it's worth. She works the complex narrative inside her head and lets the revelations drip out slowly, uncontrollably.
Director Giuseppe Tornatore says this film is about a woman reclaiming her power as a woman (there's a great big serving of motherhood with that) after it has been stripped from her from every angle imaginable. Rappoport's character is the victim of a human slave trade that uses immigrant Eastern European women to make babies for the upper-class. She's gotten out of it, but with a lot of baggage. Some of it is misplaced and some of it is hurled at us in short, chaotic flashbacks in the beginning of the film (that's the hard to follow part), slowly unfolding to more understandable scenes as they catch up with her present life at the end of the film--a nice structural technique by the director.
Roger Ebert wrote a review of this movie which essentially lists the aspects of it he thinks he understands and the aspects he thinks he doesn't. He scores a little above average, I think, which is about as good as anyone is probably going to do. There's a noir-ish component (not a stylistic one) to the film where major events and character traits are unleashed which are way beyond the reality of any mere mortal's life. There are also plenty of cause-for-pause moments when you will consider if the means justify the end. That's the hard to swallow part but I'm not complaining. It is a movie after all, and if you've read many of my reviews you know that I take all comers when it comes to plot gymnastics as long as they don't infringe upon the integrity of my players, as long as they don't cause incredulity to appear on the faces of the actors because they don't believe the script. Giuseppe Tornatore is lucky, or smart, to have enlisted an actress with the strength of Xenia Rappoport. ET coulda popped in here and I don't think she would have missed a beat.
Speaking of beats, Ennio Morricone scored this film spectacularly.