The movie


Every night nameless bodies land in Dr. Cristina Cattaneo’s autopsy room. She calls them the Pure Unknown.

These Pure Unknown often belong to the fringes of society. They are homeless, sex workers, runaway teenagers. Lately, they have mostly been migrants, rejected by the Mediterranean Sea onto the shores of Italy.

If all rights belong to the living, nothing is left to the dead. So what happens when the dead have lost their identity?

In the face of this growing multitude, no one seems concerned about their right to dignity. No one but Cristina.

Directors' notes


On a technical level, the concept of "identity" can be defined as a set of individual characteristics that unmistakably differentiate a particular individual from another. And this, after all, does not go beyond scientific details such as the peculiar features of the face, the shape of the teeth or DNA characteristics. Cristina and Labanof’s approach shows that there is something more, that identity is also something else. It is the combination of experience, affection, feelings and emotions that characterise an entire existence. And this existence leaves recognizable "marks" on each of us, in the same way that genetic code might  "shape" our traits. I am the colour of my eyes, but also the broken nose, a sign of my passion for boxing. I am the shape of my face, but also the fragility of my heart scarred by surgery. I am my protruding ears, but also the circumcision that I have undergone for religious reasons.

Identity is defined both in particularistic terms (a person's identity is unique and unrepeatable), but also in terms of "recognition", equality, within a context, with a group of people. "Deciding the identity" of someone ultimately means deciding what a person is and what he is not, but also wondering which other individuals that person is similar or dissimilar to. The process therefore involves two opposing but closely connected operations: separation, on the one hand, which builds identity on the basis of those characteristics that make the subject unique and unrepeatable, and inclusion, on the other, which plays the card of generality. and recognizes belonging and similarities with others.

On the one hand, Cristina and Labanof interrogate the unknown remains in search of those unmistakable characteristics that constitute a person's identity and uniqueness, at the same time they are confronted with issues that go beyond particularism, universal questions such as death, mourning, the end of an existence. These are issues that generate feelings common to all: sadness, compassion, emptiness. This is why we have the impression that Cristina and Labanof’s work explores not only the identity of the individual, but also that of entire societies, while presenting itself as an “inclusive” response in the context of the anxieties and barriers that characterise our time.

Documentary style

‘Pure Unknown’ is an observational documentary, therefore it is shot without interviews, a technique typical of the so-called "cinema of reality" and which endeavours to tackle the theme of identity from an unusual point of view and, through the investigation, to answer the question of what makes us ourselves, what makes us recognizable, in every nuance of the term. Essentially, it tries to touch on some of the issues that are part of our daily life, such as the massacres in the Mediterranean Sea and small / great stories of the invisible that we read in the newspapers.

Our story is built through the direct observation of what happens in the offices, in the corridors of the Labanof, in the classrooms of the University and in Cristina's private life. There are no interviews to explain what happens, but the understanding of what happens will pass through the dialogues that arise spontaneously between the characters in the film, during autopsies, investigations, but also coffee breaks, meetings, lessons.

This is our approach as documentary makers, the mode of "observation" that we are accustomed to putting into action in front of the stories we decide to tell. Just as Cristina and the Labanof researchers try to reconstruct a person's story starting from the tiny fragments of bones that are in front of the eyes, so we try to put our story together, collecting fragments of reality, piece by piece. For this mode of observation to bear its best results, our presence within the laboratory and in the private lives of the characters we decide to follow must be accepted with loving disposition. And this took years of research and of relationship building with Cristina and her team.

The protagonist

The theme we decided to explore is identity, but we tell the story of a woman, Cristina, and of the battle she finds herself fighting every day to ensure that the "nameless" are not lost, forgotten. She is the protagonist of the film, she is the one we follow closely and accompany with our camera between the remains of saints, autopsies of unknown people, DNA tests, exhumations and meetings with the Labanof team. We accompany Cristina, step by step, in her attempt to shake the conscience of the European institutions, until her hearing in the European Parliament.

Her team

In any self-respecting film, the protagonist never faces a challenge alone. She must have helpers by her side. And in our film Cristina's helpers are her colleagues, people who have worked alongside her for years and who, over time, have become something more for her than just collaborators. Cristina engages with each of them, sometimes they collide. Davide Porta, the biologist and artist of the group, models plasticine facial reconstructions on the skulls; Danilo De Angelis, is an odontologist and computer wizard; Dominic Salsarola, is an archaeologist and cadaver dog trainer, Marco Caccianiga, a botanist who recognizes all kinds of plants on the face of the Earth. And then there are Debora, Giulia, Lara and Barbara, the researchers, former students of Cristina’s who support her in every step. And Pasquale Poppa, known as Pas, who has the thankless task of finding the resources to keep the laboratory running, to pay for the necessary tests for identification, to buy some new machinery when the previous one is to be thrown away and to support female researchers with meagre grants.

All the people involved embraced the documentary project in the form we were proposing, without hesitation. So much has been done in this sense that we, the authors, first of all, have become an integral part of the laboratory, discovering not only its most hidden and secret sides, but also the most human ones. It is thanks to this total access that the film can be enriched with a wider range of emotions and tones. In fact, Cristina and her family are people capable of the greatest professionalism and seriousness, but also of incredible comedy and lightness, qualities necessary for those who work so closely with death. It will be this alternation of notes to allow the viewer to empathise with the protagonists and their conflicts.

Her antagonists

In the film, Cristina obviously has to compete with antagonists, “enemies”, who, unlike the helpers, have no face and often hide behind rubbish, behind doors that close or do not open at all. They are the indifference and slowness of the bureaucracy. The apathy of the institutions. The ignorance of those who do not understand the importance of looking after the dead to take care of the living, those who remain and their need to start mourning. These are the obstacles that Cristina and her team have to face. And sometimes they will be so difficult to overcome that Cristina will allow herself to be overwhelmed by despair and fatigue, even these invisible enemies can bring her vulnerability to light.

Visual style

The visual style of the film immerses the viewer in an atmosphere that has a lot in common with the crime genre. An atmosphere made up of autopsies, genetic tests, inspections on the scene of the discovery. Precisely the presence of lifeless bodies leads us to reflect on the position to take while filming death. And so we choose to work mostly off-screen. The following example should clarify this choice: during an autopsy, the height we adopt for the camera is for sure that of the body lying on the anatomical table, but the body is not framed in full, the camera points the lens on the faces and the gestures of Cristina and her team. We let the "missing" image compose itself in the viewer's mind, thanks to the words exchanged by doctors, the reactions you can read on their faces, the emotions in their gazes. This off-screen narrative, however, is not just about the bodies, but is a common thread running through the entire film. We want to lead the viewer to autonomously fill the invisible, empty space through their imagination. An invitation to constantly look for the missing part of the story exactly as Cristina and the researchers do when they collect the clues necessary to reveal an ending, a name, an identity.

With a view to visually reproducing the investigation process that Cristina and the researchers have to undertake on the remains and bodies, the way in which they try to "focus" on the clues to find the "sharpness" of a clear and certain answer, in some moments of the film we use filters on the lens to blur, cover, mask reality. The scenes in which we decide to apply these filters are moments of abstraction, which place the viewer in Cristina's position in front of a reality with turbid and confused contours, the same reality that is the background to the dreams and nightmares that often occupy her nights.

Technical specifications

Title: Pure Unknown
International title: Pure Unknown
Running time: 93'
Genre: documentary
Year: 2023
Languages: Italian, English
Subtitles: English
Format: 2.39:1
Country of Production: Italy, Switzerland, Sweden
World Premiere: Visions du Reel 2023
International Premiere: Hot Docs 2023
Italian Premiere: Biografilm Festival 2023


Production: Jump Cut
In co-production with: Amka Films Productions, Sisyfos Film Production, RSI
Authors and directors: Valentina Cicogna, Mattia Colombo
Photography: Jacopo Loiodice
Sound: Simone Paolo Olivero, Paolo Benvenuti
Sound design and Mix: Philippe Gozlan
Editing: Valentina Cicogna
Music: Zeno Gabaglio
Producers: Sebastiano Luca Insinga (Jump Cut/IT), Chiara Nicoletti (Jump Cut/IT)
Co-producers: Amel Soudani (Amka/CH), Nicola Bernasconi (Amka/CH), Mario Adamson (Sisyfos/SE)
Commissioning editor: Silvana Bezzola for RSI
World sales: Deckert Distribution
Supported by: Creative Europe MEDIA, Eurimage, MiC Direzione Generale Cinema e Audiovisivo, Trentino Film Commission, Piemonte Film Commission - Piemonte Doc Film Fund, Divisione Cultura Cantone Ticino, Passage Antenne SRG - SSR, Docs Up Fund

This film was a finalist in the Solinas Documentary Award for Cinema, has been awarded with first prize of MFN - Milano Film Network, received support from MEDIA Europe, Eurimages, MiC, Trentino Film Commission, Piemonte Doc Film Fund, Cultural Division Cantone Ticino, Docs Up Fund, has been developed at EURODOC and was selected for the international workshop Dok.Incubator

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