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Malena takes place in the 1940s, as Italy gears up for war with the Allied nations, confident in its superiority and in its righteousness. The film stars the beautiful Italian actress Monica Belluci (Brotherhood of the Wolf) as the titular character, a young wife who was brought to this new town by her new husband, who has since gone to war leaving his wife to care for his deaf father. For the simple reason that she is gloriously beautiful and the object of desire for the town’s men (and boys), Malena becomes the target of hateful rumors and petty acts of jealousy by the women: They don’t sell her fresh food and would rather spit on her rather than say “Hi”.
When news arrives that her husband has been killed in action, Malena’s new “availability” status becomes the source of lustful actions by the town’s men. This, of course, also makes the town women despise her even more. All of Malena’s trials and tribulations are seen through the eyes (and ears) of 12-year old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who discovers lust, love, and devotion in the form of the lonely Malena.
For much of its First and Second Act, Malena plays out as a comedy. The film is filled with vulgar language and sexual imageries as men and boys use Malena as the primary source for their fantasies, in private thoughts and in conversation with each other. Sexual innuendos abound as everyone and their cousin lets us know how much they want Malena and what they would do with her if given the chance. Renato is no different, and has discovered the joys of masturbation, spurred on by his obsessive preoccupation with Malena. Much of the film’s comedy comes at the expense of the maturing Renato as he realizes the pleasures of masturbation and the cons of having loud, squeaky bed springs. Like a lovesick dog, Renato follows Malena everywhere she goes on his new bike, completely oblivious to the world and the war going on around him.
In fact, much of the town seems unaware that there is even a war going on, despite the presence of soldiers hipping off and Fascist rallies, not to mention the sudden shortages of food and supplies because all of Italy’s resources are being sent to the front lines. As the Allies creep closer and closer toward the town everyone is blissfully ignorant. (That is, until Allied bombers began appearing in the skies.)
Instead, the town is content to live their lives gawking at and spreading hateful rumors about Malena. They live in a world all their own, and at the very center is the character Malena, who is everything and anything they want her to be (in their minds and conversations, anyway). Because she never talks back and never confronts them, they are free to shape her to whatever person they wish in order to fulfill their own fantasies of envy or desire. Their lives are created around her, and yet they despise her for no apparent reason. And she takes it. She takes it all without a single flinch.
It goes without saying that Monica Belluci is stunningly beautiful as Malena, a woman who exudes smothering sexuality just by walking through town each morning to buy food and to take care of her husband’s father at his apartment. Belluci’s Malena is understated, seemingly unaware of her own natural beauty, and is unaffected by the whispers of those around her. Through the hurricane of rumors, insinuations, and innuendos, she exerts a calm, strong exterior that we later learn is all a faÃ§ade — yes, she is hurt by the rumors, but she just can’t allow herself to show it. She can’t show weakness in front of them, and as long as she maintains her false, unbothered demeanor, they cannot harm her.
Monica Belluci seems born for the role; the actress’s performance is haunting and subtle and heartbreaking at the same time. We can’t help but feel deeply for her as each morning she walks through town, like a condemned prisoner through the gauntlet, and knowing full well that she doesn’t deserve any of this punishment.
The character of Renato, inserted into this storm, is a perfect companion for us. It’s through Renato’s eyes (and young Giuseppe’s inspired and believable acting) that we see the population of the town for what they really are: a fickle group of people with no convictions; people who has nothing better to do than lust after another man’s wife and hate a woman they have never said “Hi” to. The town also has the ability to turn on anyone and anything at the drop of a hat. They support Fascism one day and curse Mussolini the next. As Renato races to and fro to protect Malena, exacting revenge on people who badmouths her (he throws a brick through one window, urinates into another woman’s bag), we cheer him on. The boy is doing what we want to be doing! He’s fighting for her! He’s fighting back because Malena can’t.
Direction by Tornatore is sweeping and effective. The movie loses (on purpose) all of its comedy by the Third Act, and I felt the shift was too abrupt. One moment we are indulging in Renato’s fantasies about a nude Malena (multiple times and in various situations), and the next she is selling herself to the Nazis.
Act Three seems out of place and the movie might have been better balanced had the comedy in the previous two Acts not been so overly done. It’s very hard to convince an audience to take your movie seriously when, for the last hour or so, you’ve been bombarding them with images and scenes that is reminiscent of a TV sitcom. Except for this error in judgment, Tornatore represents Italy well, with wide camera angles that capture the country’s majesty and long, tracking close-up shots of the lovely Monica Belluci walking across screen. Tornatore must have realized early on that he had a gem on his hands and was determined to milk it for all it was worth. The gem’s name is Monica.
Malena is a good film, and like its much-suffering heroine, is very worthy of loving praise.
Giuseppe Tornatore (director) / Giuseppe Tornatore, Luciano Vincenzoni (screenplay)
CAST: Monica Bellucci …. Malena Scordia
Giuseppe Sulfaro …. Renato Amoroso