I think that “Malèna” (2000) is a better film than many of the other Italian films set in fascist times that have been honored as “best foreign language films”: Mediterraneo, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Life Is Beautiful, and even Amarcord. Indeed, I think that it is probably the best Italian film since “Cinema Paradiso,” which was also written and directed (twenty years ago) by Giuseppe Tornatore.
One admirable aspect is that the “macro context” is clearer in “Malèna” than in these other films. There is no need to stop and insert newsreel footage, because the local reverberations of the course of the war are very clear. Making historical sense is a rarely invoked criterion of excellence. “Malèna” has many others, but the passage of time is handled so ineptly in the much-honored list of films above, that I start with it.
Hardship is downplayed in all these films, though getting food is a problem for the title character in “Malèna.” Renato (Giuseppi Sulfaro) is propelled more by hormones than by hunger, but his family seems to have enough to eat.
Renato is obsessed with Malèna Scordia (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of the small city’s new Latin teacher. Her husband is off fighting colonial wars in East Africa. She is very beautiful, very unprotected, and more than a little provocatively dressedand shod. Renato is not the only one obsessed with her. The whole city is! Men of all ages are drooling about—and occasionally on—her. Respectable women are outraged at the effect she has on the men. Both sexes resent her—the women because she distracts the men, the men because she is at the time so voluptuous and so unavailable to them. Renato seems to be the only one who does not resent her. He worships her as a goddess from whom one cannot expect anything, spies on her, fantasizes about her, is horrified at the good citizen’s treatment of her, fights to defend her honor, and is heartbroken by his inability to protect her from what others spitefully regard as and make be her fate.
The film, beautifully photographed in Syracuse, Sicily by Lajos Koltai, from a story by Luciano Vicenzoni, takes Renato’s retrospective perspective on his wartime youth. What Malèna thinks of what befalls her, from the daily ogling and resentment to her “punishment,” is opaque to the viewer, because inaccessible to the boy. In a sense this means that the film objectifies her, just as the townspeople, including Renato did. Although she is the object of masturbatory fantasies in the film, I would stress that the perspective of the film is retrospective. That is, it is the adult narrator conjuring both the hormone-crazed boy that he was and the woman who probably never noticed him. Looking back he has compassion for both, as does the audience, or at least most of the audience. For the mob that hails Mussolini’s declaration of war, welcomes the Nazis and the American troops in turn, it is more difficult, and for the officials who go from being fascist officials to being aides to the Americans, it is impossible.
I know that the film has some detractors, mostly those expecting another celebration of the Italian past like “Cinema Paradiso” or the blitheness of “Amarcord.” And for the first hour or so, this film is lighthearted, even comic. But “Malèna” is not bittersweet in the manner of late Fellini movies. The violence is not stylized as it is in much recent American popular culture. What happens is excruciating to watch. The violence, when it comes, lasts an agonizingly long time.
I do not think that the leads are “wooden,” as some other viewers have. Monica Bellucci’s subjectivity is supposed to be unavailable, and during most of her scenes she is trying not to show emotion, but it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could think that Giuseppi Sulfaro is inexpressive! And, being an Italian movie, there are some other very expressive characters. There are plenty of theatrical gesticulation and operatically overdramatized speech available from the lawyer and from the mother in two of the film’s hilarious (yet not unserious) scenes.
I think that the film is at times extremely funny, but it plunges into horror and anguish, and ultimately provides catharsis. Is there anything else that art is supposed to do?
The cinematography of Lajos Koltai (The Legend of 1900) is superb (and wasa Oscar-nominated), the pacing brisk, and the acting convincing. My only dissatisfaction was with the overly insistent music supplied by Ennio Morricone (composer for hundreds of films, including “For a Few Dollars More,” “Brun!” and “Cinema Paradiso”). Eventually, I predict that “Malèna” will be recognized as a worthy addition to the tradition of “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Nights of Cabiria,” two of the most poignant classics of Italian neorealistic cinema. It is also one of the few great films about those treated as collaborators, along with “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”
©2001, 2019, Stephen O. Murray