Guiseppe Tornatore’s enchanting Cinema Paradiso delved into the youthful dreams of a boy who lived for the flickering images on the silver screen. In his latest film, Malena, the Italian director revisits the dreams and fantasies of adolescence by focusing on a young boy’s coming of age in Mussolini’s Italy. The film begins as a delightful look at sexual awakening, though a more serious turn provides the real substance of this story about childhood fantasies that are inevitably stripped away.
Newcomer Guiseppe Sulfaro makes an impressive debut as 12-year-old Renato, who gets his first bicycle and his first pangs of lust on the day Il Dulce declares war on Great Britain. His volatile father, who despises the dictator, predicts that the war will change everything. But it is not the war that changes Renato. It is the town’s glorious young bride, Malena (the dazzling Monica Bellucci), who becomes the object of every man and boy’s desire and every woman’s scorn. When her husband is called off to fight for the Fascist cause, Malena is left alone at the mercy of the town’s gossips.
Renato first spies Malena as he sits on a seaside wall with his friends, who gather daily to watch the silent beauty walk to work in her tight dress and high heels, her head held high. It’s a proud, haunted look that she wears like protective armor. Renato is immediately besotted. He thinks and dreams of nothing but this unattainable goddess who doesn’t know he exists. He follows her everywhere on his trusty new bicycle, tracking her across town to an apartment where a man’s hand drops her a key through the window. This junior voyeur climbs on roofs and scales walls and trellises to spy on her wherever she is.
He jealously watches the town’s men fall all over themselves, hoping in vain for a “Bon Giorno” or a glance from Malena. When she walks down the street, it’s like seeing Ruth Orkin’s famed “American Girl in Italy 1951” photograph come to life. The women are watching, too, with fear, loathing and envy. Renato listens with contempt as the town’s men gossip about who might be sharing her bed and women derisively whisper that she’s “vulgar” and “acts so superior.” Renato gets back at them in hilarious ways before going to church to pray that the saints protect Malena from the malicious town.
Malena’s haughtiness, as his voyeurism shows him, is nothing more than loneliness. She’s an outsider without a single friend in town. Malena’s beauty has set her apart. Women shun her and men desire her without seeing her at all. No one speaks to her and she speaks to no one. Renato, alone, gets a glimpse into the woman behind the fantasy. He watches her put on the records and dance alone, holding her husband’s picture. He sees that the man she visits daily is her deaf father, his Latin teacher at school. But Renato’s own feverish fantasies prevent him from really seeing Malena as well. He’s a curious prepubescent boy preoccupied with new sexual urges and childish fantasies of heroism.
Tornatore’s portrayal of Renato’s fantasies make for the film’s most amusing scenes, which are also pleasantly steeped in eroticism. Sitting outside Malena’s house, Renato imagines her opening the door in a filmy peignoir that exposes her thigh. When he crawls into his bed to flip through picture postcards of naked women, they all become Malena. When he spies her cooking for her father, he imagines her leaning naked over a hot stove. Tornatore’s love of cinema comes into play as well: Renato imagines himself in Tarzan and Jane, Stagecoach and Jane Eyre with Malena as his fluttering heroine.
When her husband is killed in action, Renato sees only an opportunity for himself. In a Summer of ‘42-like scene, he imagines himself comforting the grieving widow as she lies crying on her bed. “I’ll be at your side forever,” he pledges. “Just give me time to grow up.” But when he runs into the flesh-and-blood Malena on the street, he loses all nerve to approach her. He is resigned to expressing his pent-up longing only in letters he never delivers.
The cameras caress the luminous Monica Bellucci in a manner that is pure sensuality. She has very few lines, but she doesn’t need words to exude sexuality or express her character’s isolation and loneliness. With her minimalist performance, Bellucci succeeds in giving us a glimpse into the woman behind the fantasy.
The film turns from innocence when Malena’s situation forces her to barter her beauty to survive. Renato sees where that desperation takes her. When his idol is cruelly smashed in one heart-rending scene, he remains, as always, a silent spectator. More than what he witnesses, however, it is his own lack of courage that shatters his innocence. For all his dreams of heroism, he’s a coward when it matters most.
The story Tornatore tells in Malena may not be a particularly original one, but his sensitive treatment, his skillful blend of humor and pathos, as well as the nuanced performances he elicits from Bellucci and Sulfaro, make this a film worth seeing.
Malena (R) HHH In Italian with subtitles. Written by Guiseppe Tornatore. Starring Monica Bellucci and Guiseppe Sulfaro.