Malena (Italy, 2000) ***
Directed and written by Giuseppe Tornatore from a story by Luciano Vincenzoni. Photography, Lajos Koltai. Editing, Massimo Quaglia. Art direction, Francesco Frigeri. Sets, Bruno Cesari. Costumes, Maurizio Millenotti. Music, Ennio Morricone. Cast: Monica Belluci (Malena), Giuseppe Sulfaro (Renato Amoroso), Luciano Federico (Renato's father), Matilde Piana (Renato's mother), Pietro Notarianni (Professor Bonsignore), et al. A Miramax co-production and release. In Italian with subtitles. 94 minutes. R (sex, language)
Malena is the hypocoristic form of Madalena, but there is nothing diminutive about supermodel-actress Monica Belluci. She has appeared in two dozen films, Italian and French, all unknown to me save for "Under Suspicion" (USA, with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman) which I tried to watch but gave up. They were mostly minor items, not imported in the USA. The few that were had minimal distribution.
A bit of history. Italy's Fascist leader (Il Duce) Benito Mussolini, has embroiled the country in World War II. In June 1940, as France was about to surrender to Germany, Mussolini, kicking France when she was down, joined World War II with a ridiculous attack on the South of France. Earlier, Italy had swallowed tiny Albania. From it, in October 1940 it attacked Greece which was less than half the size of Italy, had about one seventh of its population, and a non-mechanized army. But David drubbed Goliath so spectacularly that Hitler, to rescue its ally Italy and save face, had to send his juggernaut to Greece, which it occupied in April 1941.
It is 1940 and the Italian civilians may remind you of the WWII song sung by Bette Davis, "They're either too young or too old." That's most of the male population of the Sicilian seaside town of Castelcuto. But all, from pubescent to elderly lust after gorgeous, 27-year old Malena.
Whether or not "statuesque" applies to her, she is emphatically a sight to remember. Her husband is away in the army. She lives an almost reclusive life, has no apparent acquaintances. But whenever she walks in town (which is often), we recall those Vittorio de Sica movies in which Sophia Loren, in Naples and elsewhere, marches in provocative, camera-detailed fashion that makes all heads turn. Men compensate for their frustrated libido with nasty remarks. Jealous local women are ready with catty comments.
Malena, while more ambiguously and less obviously inflammatory than Loren, is conscious of the stir she causes, keeps a deadpan face, and hardly ever speaks.
The teen-age schoolboys under her thrall make me wonder whether Tornatore remembered Truffaut's short film "Les Mistons," in which the sap rises within mischievous pre-teen boys. Unconscious of their desire for a local beauty, they take out their confusion on her and her boyfriend, stalk them, and play silly pranks on the couple.
The kids in the movie already wear long pants--a symbol of manhood-- except for the younger Renato who is twelve-and-a-half and barely manages to join the fan club.
The youths fantasize about Malena with graphic, coarse comments--except, again, for lovestruck Renato who stalks her, even makes a peephole in her house, spies on her but never speaks to this divine creature. His reveries include parodies of classic movie scenes, from romance to gladiatorial, "starring" himself and Malena. Other amusing sections include his pursuit of long pants and a "grown-up" chair at the barbershop; stealing his idol's panties; his mother trying to cure him by exorcism but Dad opting to take Renato to a bordello in which the boy selects a Malena look-alike.
The movie portrays the Sicilians as loud and excitable, in a post-neorealist way. Then comes a change of modes and moods. The comical-sexual satire shifts gears into near-tragedy. Malena's husband is reported dead at the front. Widows are acceptable prey. The old tabu is lifted for some of the lusting males. To subsist, now indigent Malena turns into a reluctant prostitute--and a pariah.
In July 1943 Liberation from the Germans comes as G.Is enter the town. Jealous wives attack Malena for having consorted with the enemy. They cut off her hair --a punishment common in many countries, and shown in films such as "Hiroshima, Mon Amour." On an isle once colonized by Ancient Greece, the women beat Malena viciously, acting like Maenads or the vindictive Thracian women of Greek mythology.
Malena goes away, joining hordes of refugees. But later her husband reappears, and finally both return to Castelcuto where both Malena and her former accusers reach a cautiously redemptive, hesitantly open-ended ending.
Tornatore continues his string of first-rate movies. Fame and prizes (at Cannes, at the Oscars, etc.) came with "Cinema Paradiso," his second film. Before this was a solid first feature "Il Camorrista," not distributed in the US in spite of an American actor, Ben Gazzara. Before that, Tornatore had made several fine TV films, imaginative, cultural documentaries. Post-"Cinema Paradiso" came a string of features that were mostly excellent but still suffered from US lack (or spottiness) of distribution: the marvelously touching "Everybody's Fine," "Especially on Sunday," "A Pure Formality," "The Star Maker," "The Legend of 1900."
From lyrical scenes to a bombing raid "Malena" is splendidly shot by the great, Hungarian-born Lajos Koltai. The loving views of Sicily compete for splendor with Malena's. All production values are superior, from period costumes to Ennio Morricone's music (he is Tornatores's constant collaborator). The subtitling is exceptionally good and rich.
Shooting was in the southeastern towns of Siracusa (pop. 32,000) and Noto (pop. 22,000), then in Morocco, where there was sunshine while winter was coming to Sicily.
On the iffy side: It is confusing that the invented Castelcuto is supposedly "a sleepy village" yet looks like a town.
Also confusing is the Professor, Malena's father (or father-in-law, it is unclear), who teaches Latin, is constantly the butt of the pupils' loud, vulgar remarks about Malena. But he seems not to notice them, yet there's no proof that he is deaf.
An explanation may be in the fact that the film's American copies are 94 minutes long while in Italy they run 105 minutes.
As in most foreign movies, or for that matter American pictures that deal with the past, there's a dimension here that fleshes out matters for Italians, though perhaps not some younger ones. The references to the popular song "Ma l'Amore No" and to Alida Valli. The fascist anthem "Giovinezza." The mocking of Mussolini and his regime. The allusions to Italy's rout in North Africa. The post-Liberation former Fascists who are cynical, well-dressed and perhaps still in positions of privilege. And so on. But cuts and references notwithstanding, this is a most satisfying and original work.