If you enjoyed Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore's Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso," that fond remembrance of childhood and the movies, then you may also like his 2000 entry in approximately the same style, "Malena." A period piece set at the beginning of World War II, the story is a nostalgic look back at a boy's loss of innocence and his entrance into the adult world. The picture is beautiful to the eye, and its heart is genuinely in the right place; but as far as coming-of-age films are concerned, I found it a middling entry in the field and curiously unengaging.
The voice-over narrator, an adult man, tells us he was twelve and a half when Mussolini's Italy declared war on France and Great Britain, the same day he got his first bike and the day he fell in love with Malena (Monica Bellucci). The place setting is the village of Castelcuto, Sicily, the time setting covering the duration of the war. It is a war that is hardly noticed by young Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who is fighting his own inward struggle to contain his feelings for the twenty-seven-year-old town beauty. We're told Malena moved to Castelcuto from another village, the wife of a young serviceman who subsequently went off to combat and was killed in action. She is considered an outsider and soon becomes the subject of conversation for everyone in town, the women gossiping about how many lovers she has taken, the men engaging in rough talk about how much they would like to be her lover. Only Renato sees her as pure and innocent, like himself.
The film is a lightweight, romanticized seriocomic drama about youth's infatuation with ideals, but one where the object of ideal desire, Malena, turns slowly into the focus of our attention as the boy drifts further and further into the background. In the beginning Renato's bike marks his admission into the private new world of older boys, a group whose sole business seems to be to watch and follow Malena on her public rounds of the village. The boys, like the men of the town, employ themselves in the crude remarks, actions, and braggadocio that are typical of adolescent youngsters and which along with some nudity and sexual situations promptly earn the film an R rating.
But while the rest of the boys are interested only in looking and talking big, Renato's obsession drives him to further extents. He daydreams and fantasizes about her constantly, he steals a pair of her underpants, and he begins to spy on her through a hole in the wall of her house. He is clearly outgrowing his pants, literally. He feels he is now ready for long trousers, his symbol of manhood, and he orders some without telling his parents, who have little money. When the father finds out he throws a fit, yelling, screaming, throwing things around, and beating the boy.
Everything in the film is seen through the narrator's eyes, looking back presumably some fifty or sixty years. We are reminded that the prism of memory can distort the truth, so how much of the story is exaggeration and how much is real is for the viewer to decide. Was Malena as attractive as Renato remembers? Were the villagers' reaction to Malena's descent into prostitution a reality or the colorations of the narrator's hyperactive imagination? In any case, the boy's illusions about life are shattered by Malena's downfall and the hypocritical tone the town takes against her.
Her only crime, the film tells us, is being beautiful. But as Huck Finn remarks at the end of Mark Twain's novel, "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another." Yet one person unbeknownst to her never loses faith in her--her devoted, secret, and distant admirer, Renato. When at the end of the movie he helps her pick up some groceries she has dropped, she says, "Thank you for your help," the only lines she ever utters directly to him. She doesn't realize how much the words actually mean.
So, it's a sweet story of love and belief and shattered illusions and reconciliation, and I wanted very much to like it. The movie's endearing earnestness begs us to like it, and Tornatore's loving camera work invites us to cherish it. Yet in the last analysis, the film doesn't say much. Although Malena becomes increasingly the center of the story's attention, we never really get to know her; indeed, she hardly says more than a few words the whole movie long. At the same time, we never get to know the boy very well, either, beyond the fact that he has romantic illusions and is just as horny as any other boy his age. Perhaps he is supposed to be a young Everyman, symbolic of each of us, but it is of little consolation when we simply would like to know more about the person who's telling this story. The coming-of-age business is fine, too, but it's been done before and better, so it's hardly unique.
Then there's the movie's vulgarity, bordering on tastelessness in some fairly graphic scenes. Of course, it lends the film a certain raw earthiness and vitality, which is pleasant. But I wonder about a film so light and innocuous and carefree on the one hand, with the raunch of an "American Pie" on the other. I can only warn the potential viewer that the contrasts can be disconcerting.
Finally, there is the ending, which is a stretch, to say the least, and almost throws the rest of the film out of kilter. It isn't until later reflection that one realizes its sentimentality may be entirely in keeping with a film that doesn't have as much substance as we would like, or are lead, to believe.
The colors of the warm, sleepy, sun-drenched Sicilian village are captured in an excellent 2.12:1 ratio widescreen Buena Vista DVD transfer. The hues are rich and realistic and do much to convey the atmosphere of the boy's youthful wonder and joy of life. Only an occasional moiré effect, a fluttering or jagged line, interferes with near perfection.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics also play a crucial part in our appreciation of the local scene, the sound reflecting the natural ambiance of crowds, wind, music, and bombing planes. The response is never bright or glaring as it can be in many recent films but maintains a high level of believability and easy listenability throughout.
Beyond the excellence of the disc's audiovisual characteristics, however, there is little to report on. The film's major bonus item is an eleven-minute featurette on "The Making of Malena," done in full-frame and providing a few interviews with the director and stars. Then there are some "Sneak Peeks" at other BV foreign films, twenty-six scene selections, a pan-and-scan theatrical trailer, and three brief TV spots. A bone of contention among some viewers may be that Italian and French are the only spoken languages provided, meaning that if you don't speak those languages, you will have to content yourself with subtitles in English or Spanish. Well, at least we're spared the embarrassment of a bad dubbing.
"Malena" is ravishing to look at, both the film and the actress playing the part, the lush cinematography and luxuriant musical score, both nominated for Academy Awards, adding to our enjoyment. But, ultimately, the film disappoints by not being about very much. It appeals to the eye without much attention to the mind. As I said, I wanted to like it much more.