A coming-of-age story from the director of Cinema Paradiso, Malena is set in a Sicilian seaside village that would seem downright idyllic were it not for the looming shadow of Mussolini and occasional Allied air raids. Burnished with a golden nostalgic haze that suggests a third generation Amarcord (as filtered through Woody Allen’s Radio Days), the movie is a featherweight that might well blow right off the screen were it not anchored in place by a few darker undercurrents.
Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) is twelve-and-a-half years old in 1940, and his hormones are beginning to run amuck. The primary object of his affection – and that of every other breathing male in the town of Castelcuto – is Malena Scordia (Monica Bellucci), the new Latin teacher’s stunning daughter, who is married to a soldier away at war. The leering menfolk of the village lust after Malena, much to the displeasure of their uniformly shrewish wives; all eyes are on her every time she walks through the town square. But Renato is the most devoted of them all, following Malena around on his bicycle, peering at her through fence posts and knotholes, and masturbating to cinematic fantasies about her night after night, much to the dismay of his slap-happy father (Luciano Federico). It’s clear why director Giuseppe Tornatore chose to set his fable-like film in the past; today Renato would be facing a restraining order.
Nothing much happens for the first hour or so of Malena; we see the title character walk down the cobblestone streets in slow motion at least half a dozen times, always accompanied by the lecherous stares of the men and the gossipy chatter of the women. And we see that, despite the oppressive spectre of fascism, Renato has an adolescence like any other, complete with ants burning under magnifying glasses, inchoate emotions churning to the tune of vintage pop songs, and mattress springs squeaking in the dead of night.
Throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, Malena herself is little more than a projection of Renato’s yearning; everytime Bellucci appears onscreen, the most profound thought we can summon about her is yep, she’s gorgeous all right. But a fall from grace awaits her, and while it isn’t quite enough to transform Malena from object of lust to full-blooded screen character, it does have the effect of keeping Tornatore’s whimsies in check. It may be that the director felt he needed a little brutality to keep his Il Duce era Sicilian village from feeling like a forgotten corner of EuroDisney; indeed, the first time Allied bombers appear overhead serves as a rude awakening after all the quaint coziness.
Malena’s eventual fate isn’t quite convincing. Tornatore tries to pull off one change of mood too many and ends up using the townspeople as puppets. By evoking such an enchanting setting and populating it with such off-putting caricatures, the director invests Renato with an unearned nobility. In the end, we are meant to feel that only his love was pure – but by then it’s become all too apparent that it was a stacked deck all along.