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Movies
'Malena'

Pretty woman becomes a target in war-torn 'Malena' Talk of the town

Friday, February 02, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

At first, it seems that "Malena" -- set in Sicily in 1940 -- bears more than a passing resemblance to "Summer of '42." The 27-year-old wife of an absent soldier has the seaside villagers of Castelcuto, especially those of the male persuasion, atwitter over her beauty and sexuality. Her behind gets more notice than Jennifer Lopez's.

 
 
'Malena'


RATING: R for sexuality/nudity, language and some violence.

STARRING: Monica Bellucci, Giuseppe Sulfaro

DIRECTOR: Giuseppe Tornatore

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

When she strolls through the town square, all heads swivel in her direction. The gawkers survey her ankle-strap, open-toe heels, her shapely skirts and blouses, her long wavy black hair. She averts her eyes, but the men speculate endlessly about her love life and lust after her, while the women (a rather unattractive lot, if the truth be told) gossip viciously about her.

Midway to two-thirds through the movie, the story takes an ugly, dark turn and by the time the lights come up, the mood has undulated from sugary innocence to sadness and shock and, eventually, a feeling best described as bittersweet. Thoughts about those teens on the New England beach in '42 have long since been forgotten.

"Malena," from the Oscar-winning director of "Cinema Paradiso," takes its title from the name of the village beauty, Malena Scordia (Monica Bellucci). Her most ardent and persistent admirer is a boy named Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) who is nearly 13 when he first sees her.

Renato shadows Malena during the day and quietly spies on her at night, watching as she sits in a black slip at her sewing machine or dances barefoot with the framed portrait of her husband as the record player spins. He buys the same piece of music, obsessively listens to it and fantasizes about her. A particularly inspired bit inserts Renato and Malena into famous movie scenes; in one, he's the stagecoach hero and she's the curly-haired maiden.

As the hardships of World War II deepen, Malena pays an increasingly high price for her comely looks. The women won't sell her any decent food in the marketplace and they forbid their husbands to hire her. In the meantime, the taxes on her house are mounting. Except for her father, a nearly deaf Latin teacher, she has no allies.

Renato pays his own price for his silent devotion. His hot-tempered father discovers Renato sleeping with a pair of purloined panties on his face and boards up his windows. But his discipline is nothing compared with what the town does to Malena, who does what she must to survive and turns into the sort of woman everyone -- wrongly -- thought she was.

"Malena," in Italian with English subtitles, ends on a note of reconciliation and redemption and with a nod to the purity of adolescent love. After exposing the ugliness of mankind, director-writer Giuseppe Tornatore tries to make a case for dignity, courage and love.

Tornatore's screenplay was inspired by a short story by Luciano Vincenzoni. As he did in his valentine to the cinema, he casts well: model-turned-actress Bellucci, who actually has very few lines and is usually seen from afar, and young Sulfaro. Filmmakers looked at 2,000 photos of Sicilian boys and scoured the beaches in search of the right teen-ager. A picture of 15-year-old Sulfaro was submitted by his aunt who thought he fit the casting call for a "thin Sicilian boy, 12 to 15, outgoing and friendly."

Renato, who provides scattered narration and our point of view, must go from boy literally in short pants to young man, from observer to participant, from silent witness to quiet defender. He shoulders this assignment well, while Bellucci must weather her character's own physical and emotional changes.

Although its effects are ever-present, the war recedes into the background for much of the movie. When the sky overhead finally fills with planes and violence erupts from within and without, it seems shocking. We've been protected in this somewhat innocent cocoon, and the shift is jarring.

You may still be recovering your equilibrium by the time Tornatore and composer Ennio Morricone try to guide us back to some middle ground, but everyone has been changed by that point. Including the moviegoer.



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