Puberty is that time in a boy's life when everything feels like it's breaking down: your joints are throbbing from growing pains, your voice takes on the qualities of a rusty hinge, hair starts growing in strange places, and you begin to feel very self conscious. Most importantly, you start noticing the opposite sex in a way you never had before. Things pretty much go down hill from there.
For the small Sicilian village of Castelcuto, the Second World War has not been as intrusive as the arrival of Malena Scordia, the young bride of a local. She has two strikes against her: she is from another village and her stunning beauty draws unwanted attention. Whenever she walks down the street, the men relentlessly ogle her and hiss when she passes by. The women are even worse, spewing invective, insults and insinuation. Enter Renato, a headstrong twelve-year-old with a deep crush on our heroine. He is determined to be her savior and rescue her reputation. Malena's situation becomes increasingly perilous with the death of her husband at the front, further inspiring Renato's resolve.
Who was not moved by Tornatore's earlier film 'Cinema Paradiso'? With its mix of eccentric characters, stunning cinematography, humor, and beautiful story line, it is everything movies aspire to. Naturally, I anticipated a similarly styled film, and from what little I had gleaned from previews, I expected 'Malena' to be a coming of age tale along the lines of 'The Summer of '42'. Assumptions, as always, are a fool's game.
While Monica Bellucci has the beauty part of her role down pat, she’s also a talented actress who makes you feel her desperation and agony without going overboard. Renato, masterfully played by the spirited Giuseppi Sulfaro, provides the few uplifting moments of the film when we’re let in on his fantasies - he is a gladiator, gangster, cowboy and all-round do-gooder who always comes to Malena's rescue. The lawyer's speech in the courtroom, and Renato's home life also provide some comic relief. Unfortunately, regardless the actor’s best efforts the film inevitably switches back to the ugly reality of Malena's lot.
Once her husband is declared dead, every man in town tries to take advantage of Malena, the local women's vitriol increases, and with few options for survival, she becomes that which she's been accused of and the film becomes very ugly. I found it increasingly difficult to watch the film, as it became so relentlessly depressing. It is one of the few films that I’ve almost walked out of.
'Malena' could have been a poignant film that reveled in a boy's struggle to fit into the world as a man or a film with a message about intolerance. Instead, the director chose to showcase negativity and use desperate times as an excuse for despicable behavior. If you enjoyed 'Cinema Paradiso', rent it again. Unless of course you are in need of an injection of bitterness, in which case, 'Malena' is the film for you.