Giuseppe Tornatore's Malena wastes no time reaching its essential subject. Within the first minute, the narrator is fondly remembering the day "when I saw her for the first time", and the accompanying images are not far behind: Malena (Monica Bellucci) drifting through a Sicilian town in 1941, capturing the gaze of everyone she passes.
The narrator is Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), in the first phase of puberty as the story begins. The outward signs of manhood cannot come quickly enough for him, but all the same he is a sensitive lad. While Renato's mates whistle at Malena and make crude remarks sotto voce, he develops a more romantic obsession, trailing her at all hours and slowly piecing together the facts of her life.
Malena's husband, Nino (Gaetano Aronica), is a soldier abroad. Her loneliness sparks lustful interest and envious rumours alike, and even, at one point, lands her in court.
The lingering exhibition of female beauty on screen has become a turn-off for many viewers over the past several decades. Indeed, the exasperated admonition of Renato's father (Luciano Federico) – "You're a voyeur! A pervert! A fetishist!" – will probably echo some audience judgements of Tornatore himself.
Malena is not in the class of Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (1996) – a film that thoroughly transcended petty, peeping Tom conventions in order to truly celebrate soulful beauty – but it handles its old-fashioned premise in a vigorous, persuasive way.
The fact that Malena is a distant fantasy figure for virtually every other character in the story partly justifies the endless presentation of her as a slow-motion Venus (although I did think the shots of light glinting between her legs were just a little excessive).
The humour helps, too. Taking tips from Fellini's masterpiece Amarcord (1973), the film surrounds Renato's sublime fantasy with a wealth of earthy, vulgar, everyday detail. The constant uproar in Renato's household and the earnest, masturbatory rituals of his teenage buddies are comic highlights. (An intriguing near-parody of the situation here is offered by the American trash comedy One Night at McCool's .)
Less successful is the film's attempt to superimpose the personal story upon an inventory of historical changes – from life under Mussolini, through the German occupation, to the American liberation. Tornatore strains for seriousness here, and misjudges the narrative turn from comedy to tragedy.
Rather than ever let us understand Malena as an individual, the film makes her a mere emblem, a puppet of history – adored one moment and abused the next, especially when poverty forces her to collaborate with the Germans.
One suspects that Tornatore would have been happy to prolong the first act – Renato following Malena around and staring at her – indefinitely, if the responsibilities of storytelling had not pushed him to these more sombre elaborations.
However, Malena is by far the most accomplished and enjoyable work in Tornatore's career to date, mercifully light on the mawkish contrivance that blighted Cinema Paradiso (1988).
© Adrian Martin October 2001