Malena (Italy/United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Malena, the latest film from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, is a curious mix of whimsy and tragedy. Tornatore's blending of the divergent tones is not entirely successful - there are several jarring moments - but, on the whole, Malena works as an affecting coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Fascist Italy and filtered through the memories of the narrator. Along the way, Tornatore sticks to the same basic style that served him well in his 1989 international hit, Cinema Paradiso, by employing equal parts nostalgia, comedy, and drama.

The year is 1940 and the place is the picturesque (and fictional) town of Castelcuta, Sicily. 13-year old Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro) is about to experience his first major adolescent crush when he catches a glimpse of Melena Scordia (Monica Bellucci). Melena, the daughter of Latin teacher Professor Bonsignore (Pietro Notarianni), has come to Castelcuta to care for her father while her husband is away at war. As Malena walks by, every man's head turns and women's tongues wag with scathing gossip. Then Melena's husband is killed in the war and she becomes free to pursue and be pursued by Castelcuta's male population. Meanwhile, Renato, whose infatuation develops into an obsession, begins spying on Malena and, in the process, learns that the "real" Malena is much different than his idealized portrait of her.

Ultimately, this is really Renato's story. He is the narrator (gazing back through the mists of decades at his childhood) and the emotional focus of the story is on how his perception of Melena helps him to develop into a man. When the film begins, he is in short pants (a sign of childhood), but, before it ends four years later, he has made the symbolic transition to long pants and burgeoning adulthood. Through it all, his obsessive interest in Melena is a constant companion, even though he never speaks to her. For Renato, she represents the unattainable, and his affections are clearly unrequited. Nevertheless, as her reputation in Castelcuta deteriorates and she is branded a prostitute, he feels betrayed by her because she is unable to live up to the mental image he has constructed of her.

Malena begins as a lighthearted drama that recalls one of Federico Fellini's best-known works, Amarcord. Tornatore does not have Fellini's deft hand, however, and the story eventually takes a dark turn, with some of its themes and ideas recalling the late Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love, in which a young voyeur comes has his fantasy picture of a woman brutally shattered by an encounter with her. The shifts in tone may make some viewers uncomfortable (especially one scene of graphic brutality that depicts what happens to Malena when she is subjected to the justice of the women of Castelcuta), but they work if we consider that the story is being presented as a series of conflicted and at times incomplete memories of someone who saw Malena as everything from a Madonna to a whore.

Malena isn't really a character; she's a vision to enflame Renato's imagination (not to mention other parts of him). As such, the key achievement for model-turned-actress Monica Bellucci is to look stunning - something she has no difficulty with, whether clothed or unclothed. Bellucci does a good job of making Melena seem aloof and stand-offish (which is how she appears to Renato), except during one or two scenes when her dire circumstances show her vulnerability. For his part, newcomer Giuseppe Sulfaro, who was discovered after an extensive casting search, does solid work portraying a boy whose guide through puberty is an untouchable woman. (When his father brings him to the local brothel to be initiated into the world of sexual maturity, Renato chooses a prostitute who strongly resembles Malena.)

One of the most powerful elements of Malena is the music, by frequent Tornatore collaborator and legendary composer, Ennio Morricone. Combined with cinematographer Lajos Koltai's sweeping camera work and beautifully photographed vistas, the music gives Malena a glorious backdrop against which the story can unfold. This is not the writer/director's most accomplished feature (Cinema Paradiso is a more complete and emotionally satisfying experience), but it offers a strong central character, an interesting historical subtext, and a coming-of-age narrative that most people will be able to relate to on one level or another.

Malena (Italy/United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Italian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1