With Fellini and Leoni gone, who now stands as Italy’s greatest living filmmaker? Anyone who says Roberto Benigni, I’m coming to your house to kick your a*s. The correct answer has to be Giuseppe Tornatore, the man behind “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Legend of 1900.” Few are as successful at telling intimate stories on such a grand scale. This is just as true of his outstanding latest film, “Malena.”
This is really about two people, Malena (Monica Bellucci) and Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro). Both live in the Sicilian village of Castelcuto. While the story begins with the announcement of Italy’s entrance into World War II, Renato, the narrator, is more concerned with his entrance into puberty, and there is no greater object of desire in town than the sexy Malena. She’s so hot, a simple walk through town draws the lustful glare of all the men and the cruel, envious gossip of all the wives. Malena’s attentions are reserved only for her beloved husband, serving in the army in Africa.
Unfortunately, when word comes one day of her husband’s death in battle, every man sees it as an opportunity to make their own play for her, married or not. In the intolerance of wartime, every jealous female around comes to the conclusion that Malena must be sleeping with every man in town. When her husband’s pension is repeatedly cut, she finds she must make some hard decisions just to survive. Then, the war really turns her life for the worse, until something very unexpected happens.
Now, the entire story is told from Renato’s perspective, as he comes to terms with manhood. We only see Malena as he sees her (and spies on her). As she is rarely given a voice (Renato can never bring himself to even talk to her), the movie is really about what the boy learns from her experiences during the war. What he witnesses is the best (Malena) and the worst (nearly everyone else) that can come from other human beings. What he learns is something about courage and the need to stand your ground against bullies, even when you’re outnumbered. I’m sure the time, setting, and Mussolini’s fascists in the background are more than meant to reinforce this idea. For the longest time, Malena is little more than an ideal to Renato, an icon to place within his fantasies. Once he sees her pain, and the compromises she must make for her own survival, he’s forced to view her as a real person. Only at this point does he really grow into a man.
Like many of his other films, it can take a while to figure out where Tornatore is going with this one. As usual, it’s worth your while to take the journey the director has planned for the audience. Unlike much of the failed Hollywood crap plaguing this Holiday movie season, he doesn’t require a big stick to beat you over the head with his big message. Sometimes subtlety and pure entertainment value are the best gifts a movie can give.