Hot Docs

Pure Unknown Review: Bones and Human Rights

Hot Docs 2023

2 mins read

Pure Unknown
(Italy/Switzerland/Sweden, 92 min.)
Dir. Valentina Cicogna & Mattia Colombo
Programme: International Spectrum (International Premiere)


Pure Unknown is a tough contemporary film dealing with one of the major issues confronting the world today: the often-deadly consequences of illegal migrations from war-torn regions of the world to the countries of the West. Mattia Colombo and Valentina Cicogna’s compassionate film follows an admirable figure, Dr. Cristina Cattaneo, a University of Milan professor who is a brilliant forensic scientist. She has assembled a team of women medical workers who work with her to attempt to find the identities of people who have died in mysterious circumstances. Dr. Cattaneo’s work concentrates on people who have lived and died on the margins of society, whether as homeless Italians or as sex workers or—in a vast number of cases she investigates–as migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to land in Italy from the Middle East.

Colombo and Cicogna follow Dr. Cattaneo as she analyzes bones—her regular job—but also works diligently as an advocate for the unknown dead. She clearly believes that they deserve to have their identities restored to them, if only for their grieving relatives. We see Cattaneo writing to foundations and bureaucrats for the money needed to do the kind of DNA and dental testing needed to establish who the skeletal figures she’s dealing with were when they were when alive. Dr. Cattaneo is a fine advocate: relentless in her quest but always polite and admirably hard-working and dedicated.

As the film develops, Dr. Cattaneo is given the opportunity to address the European Parliament about this pressing human rights issue. There are thousands of unknown victims whose identities could be established if the Parliament decides to underwrite the expense. While no decision has been made yet, one hopes that Dr. Cattaneo and the team behind her prove successful. Pure Unknown is the kind of social issue film that always attracts an audience at Hot Docs—and deservedly so in the case of this empathetic work.

Pure Unknown screened at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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