The first documentary on my schedule for this year’s Canadian International Documentary Festival, is Italy’s Sconosciuti’s Puri, or Pure Unknown. Directors Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo follow Dr. Cristina Cattaneo as she pleads for the rights of the nameless dead.

Every day, numerous unidentified bodies, classified as “pure unknowns” find their way into the autopsy room of Dr. Cattaneo. Prostitutes, teenagers that ran away from home, … but lately all she’s been able to focus on is the bodies of migrants trying to cross the sea. Her biggest problem is funding. DNA-testing is expensive. Since European countries have different laws when it comes to personal information and the laws on privacy, it’s very difficult to identify those who didn’t make it onto shore. While her pleas get rejected over and over again by local and international politicians, since taking care of the living is much more of a priority than looking after the dead and those in search of answers, it’s for sure admirable to witness Cristina’s will to constantly keep fighting for what’s right.

As a documentary, Pure Unknown is shot in the most cinematically European way possible. The first two acts barely have any dialogue and we mostly just witness the doctor’s daily life and work. A rather fascinating breadwinning we rarely see portrayed on screen in a realistic way, than what we usually see in murder mystery tv-shows. Right when the film feels like it’s starting to drag, the filmmakers introduce plenty of dialogue and a decades old cold case that’s being reopened to reinvigorate its final act. One that brings all kinds of emotions and ends things on a high note.

I admire Cicogna and Colombo’s fly-on-the-wall approach instead of your typical interview docu-style that’s been done to death. It gives the subject and the viewer some time and room to breathe, taking in what’s happening on screen without throwing a ton of information our way we’re barely able to digest before the end credits start rolling. Sure, some will complain about the fact that it lacks any real structure, but for me it worked better in understanding Dr. Cattaneo’s intentions and how too many people lack basic compassion when it comes to migrants and the unclaimed dead.

In that way Pure Unknown is a great start to kick off the festival. An inspiring portrait of a mortal warrior who goes to great lengths for those who can no longer speak up for themselves.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You can buy tickets and find more information HERE

Reviewed online (screener provided by publicist), April 28, 2023. Running time: 92 min.

PRODUCTION: A Jump Cut, Amka Films Productions & Sisyfos Film Production production supported by RSI-Radiotelevisione Svizzera. Producers: Sebastiano Luca Insinga & Chiara Nicoletti. Co-producers: Amel Soudani, Nicola Bernasconi & Mario Adamson.

CREW: Directors: Valentina Cicogna & Mattia Colombo. Cinematography: Jacopo Loiodice. Editing: Valentina Cicogna. Music: Zeno Gabaglio.

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