Review: Pure Unknown
- Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo explore the importance of a dignified burial, a right for which forensic anthropologist Cristina Cattaneo continues to fight
Long-time partners in crime, screenwriter and editor Valentina Cicogna and director Mattia Colombo are presenting their first combined directorial effort Pure Unknown [+see also:
film profile] in a world premiere in the International Competition of the Visions du Réel Festival, before screening at Hot Docs. Their collaboration began with Voglio dormire con te, Colombo’s debut feature film on which Cicogna worked as an editor and co-screenwriter. His next work, Il Posto – A Steady Job [+see also:
interview: Gianluca Matarrese and Matt…
film profile], was edited by Cicogna. Both films were selected for the Visions du Réel Festival.
The magic which gave life to Pure Unknown isn’t just the result of Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo joining forces, it’s also thanks to the relationship between the two directors and forensic anthropologist Cristina Cattaneo, who’s a professor at the University of Milan where she heads up the Medical-Legal Labanof Institute. Both incredibly determined and full of empathy, Cattaneo is a genuinely unique character.
Every night, the autopsy room in the Institute where she works takes in bodies without names or identities, so-called “pure unknowns”. They’re homeless people, sex workers, young runaways and countless migrants who have arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean Sea. Many of these souls, who have survived an infernal tragedy-themed odyssey, find themselves on the margins of Italian society, a society which doesn’t look upon them kindly, especially of late. Those who have failed to reach dry land, on the other hand, lie at the bottom of the sea. No-one really seems interested in looking after these unidentified bodies, as if they’re some vaguely shameful reality which it’s better not to think about. No-one apart from Doctor Cattaneo and her team, who never tire of fighting to find the funds necessary to give names to all those bodies who no longer have one.
Pure Unknown makes us think about the implications of not being able to provide our loved ones with a proper burial, of not being able to ritualise our pain. The parallel the film draws with the Covid pandemic is interesting in this respect. Confronted with the very real impossibility of accompanying loved ones as they slip away, loved ones who are often being buried alone and in haste, Italian audiences are forced to put themselves in the shoes of those who wake up every day without knowing where their children, mothers and fathers are. This anonymity impacts the dignity of the deceased, but it also impacts on the pain of those who knew that person. It’s staggering to think that when hoping to obtain information on these missing persons, the doctor and her collaborators worked in close collaboration with the long-term TV programme Chi l’ha visto? rather than turning to the police. Logic seems to be a rare thing in Italy.
The sensitivity with which the doctor looks after “her” bodies, washing and observing them, and the parallel the film draws between the objects which accompany the deceased and our own daily lives, affords these “pure unknowns” a dignity which society has tried to deprive them of in every way. The music accompanying the film, composed by Zeno Gabaglio, acts as a guiding thread in a story which is cruel but, thanks to Cristina Cattaneo, nonetheless full of hope.
(Translated from Italian)
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