Malena (Giuseppe Tornatore)

More catching up on the clutch of world cinema DVDs that Amazon seemed to be giving away at the beginning of the year. I guess it’s going to be unusual to say that I don’t like them, since I pick them on the basis that they have picked up awards and nominations left right and centre, and also because I am pretty bored of American films.

Malena is from the same director, Giuseppe Tornatore, as Cinema Paradiso (1989), and, at first it seems to be a rite-of-passage film in rather the same and rather naff way that a film like Summer of ’42 was, a sort of boy-wishes-he-could-meet-woman film, a protracted sexual fantasy of no great shakes or significance. But Malena turns out to be a great deal better than that. That’s because a) it has a sense of humour, and b) there is a good second story going on underneath it, which explores the Italians’ fantasies about Mussolini. The film opens on the day Mussolini declares war, the day a young boy gets his bike, and the day he sees the local looker, Malena, as played by Monica Bellucci.

Bellucci is not required really to do any acting for the first 90% of the film, which consists of her walking about a Sicilian town looking improbably glamorous, and giving rise to some really scurrilous gossip, both before her husband goes to war, and after news of his death comes through. What Tornatore is particularly good at is capturing the small town chit-chat, and the seething rumours which attach themselves to Malena, some out of jealousy, some out of desire, some out of boredom. The attachment of the young boy to Malena, and his fantasies about her (some cut for the UK and US versions, apparently and thankfully) would be very boring, were it not for the comic turns of the populace, especially of the lawyer and dentist, the latter a particular treat: a pudgy man who has let it be known that he has been seduced by her, and whose facial expressions of delight as his own reputation is inflated are terrific. The boy’s father is also a terrific character, expostulating against everyone, including Il Duce, as he tries to get a grip on his son’s obsession.

Bellucci at the outset of the film

Bellucci at the outset of the film

What makes the film is the moment when Malena, tired and desperate after all the mud slung her way, gives in to a German officer, and has to suffer the consequences after the town is captured by the Americans. At this point, Bellucci has to show that she can act, and she is exceptionally good: not in any way a stereotype of the model-turned-actress. The way the film pivots suddenly like this turns it from being watchable into being disturbing and gripping. As with Tell No One (see a couple of days ago), the minor characters are the stars – and the fact that the film is telling two stories at once gives it texture. It also has a strong ending. To say more than that would spoil the film.

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