Director Tornatore was obviously trying to achieve with this film what he did in his previous film (the widely acclaimed CINEMA PARADISO), and give us a wondrous coming-of-age story as well as a look into a bygone era. But he falls short by giving us two protagonists who are almost impossible to feel sympathy for.
“Can you say ‘stalker’ ”?
The setting is 1940 Sicily, just as Italy is entering into the war. Renato (Sulfaro), the young boy through whose eyes we see events unfold, always has a troubled look on his face, and with good reason. His family lives up to the Italian stereotypes we are used to seeing in movies—their normal mode of conversation is yelling, his father smacks him around, and his mother brings in an exorcist when her son goes into a teenaged sulk. His friends are no better, lining up like construction workers to comment loudly about the passing women, and measuring themselves to see who has the biggest equipment in their spare time. But they do introduce Renato to “the most beautiful ass in Sicily,” one Malena Scordio (Bellucci).
Renato becomes obsessed with Malena. To this end he follows her everywhere, steals her underwear, regularly peeps into her bedroom at night, and masturbates while having film-inspired fantasies about her. While he does redeem himself a little near the end of the movie with a single act of kindness, this movie leaves you wondering what the other boys are like if Renato is supposed to be the good and sensitive one. But then you consider what all the adult men in the town are like, and you have your answer…
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
Malena is apparently the only beautiful woman in town and she knows it. Her husband is off fighting the war, which leaves her with nothing to do but run errands in town wearing the tightest dresses and highest heels she can find. As she blithely walks along, the husbands make lewd comments while their fat, wrinkled wives loudly question her decency. But then news comes that her husband has been killed, taxes are due on the house, and there is no money for food. No man will employ her because their wives won’t let them, but these same men are more than willing to help her out in trade, so to speak. What’s a girl to do? Eventually she abandons all pretense and establishes herself as one of the town’s upscale prostitutes. When the war is over, in what the men watching call “a tradition among the women,” the wives drag Malena out into the street, strip and viciously beat her, and drive her out of town.
It is hard to feel sorry for Malena, who understood the time and place she lived in, and chose to rub her beauty in everyone’s face instead of just wearing looser clothes and less makeup. As for the hypocritical townspeople who hide behind the excuse of tradition, you wish they had all bought it in an air raid. I am sure that is not quite what the director intended, but his intended message about the triumph of love and the strength of the human spirit in the last few scenes comes too little and too late.