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Even with her clothes on, Monica Bellucci is beautiful. That's lucky, because it's important in this movie. But one can't help questioning the point of a motion picture dedicated almost exclusively to one town's lust for one woman. In Maléna, Sicilian director Giuseppe Tornatore's newest film, recently released internationally in a version with subtitles,
Monica Bellucci plays Maléna Scordia, the local beauty of a Sicilian
town during the Second World War. When her husband, a soldier, is reported
dead, the widow becomes the object of every local man's fantasies, and the target of their unbridled advances. This doesn't exclude thirteen year-old Renato and his friends. The movie is, essentially, the story of the young widow's experiences in an environment
which, by today's standards, is backward. Tornatore takes a few liberties
with historical facts, but the real shortcoming of Maléna is that,
despite inspired direction and competent acting, it falls short as both a coming-of-age
picture and a serious drama. It begins as an almost playful adventure, and Maléna
herself is initially portrayed as an almost ideal wife. It soon deteriorates
into an all too familiar exercise in unnecessary sex, violence, and sexual
violence as Maléna prostitutes herself and the local women take their
revenge on her.
Italian moviegoers may recognise the theme. Lina Wertmuller's 1996 film
Ninfa Plebea, starring Stefania Sandrelli and Raoul Bova, dealt with
a strikingly similar story, complete with sexist attitudes and sexual violence set against the backdrop of the Second World War. One can only wonder if the earlier film influenced Tornatore. Enzo Morricone wrote the musical scores for both motion pictures. If there's any truth in either movie's social observations, 1940s Italy was a living Hell for attractive young women even without the horrors of war. It's amazing
they didn't flee the country en masse in the arms of American soldiers as soon as they could.
Too many aspects of Tornatore's plot are never explained in a way that would satisfy the audience. Renato's fascination is understandable considering his age, but despite his obsessive spying on Maléna, we are never told just what it is that earns his sympathy for her. Her decision to prostitute herself is never fully explained, either. Is it for economic reasons? We never know for certain, and the character is never developed thoroughly enough for us to decide for ourselves. Outside Italy, distributor Miramax promoted this as a sophisticated, artsy film. Actually, it is a generic exploitation film that just happens to take place in wartime Sicily.
Giuseppe Tornatore's direction and Lajos Koltai's cinematography almost save the
film at several points. The problem is that its story, concentrating on the
superficial, is indistinguishable from so many others. This cheapens it.
Portraying 1940s characters as though they were born in the 1970s rarely
helps, either, though the performance of the young Giuseppe Sulfaro as Renato Amoroso is exceptional. Bellucci, who has appeared in Italian, American and French films, is more than a pretty face, even if her starring role in Maléna doesn't display her talent to its full potential. Within the limitations of the script, most of the acting is convincing. Still, it takes more than the right sets and costumes to get it right. This is unlike Tornatore, whose Cinema Paradiso has become something of a classic. Maléna is hardly "Cinema Paradiso Redux," and isn't meant to be, but it could have been a much more complex film.
About the Author: Michele Parisi, who presently resides in Rome, has written for various magazines and newspapers in Italy, France and the United Kingdom. (This article was translated from Italian.)