Giuseppe Tornatore, whose “Cinema Paradiso” was everyone’s favorite Italian film before “Life Is Beautiful” came along, returns to his nostalgia roots with “Malena,” a charming and vulgar story about a woman whose beauty enraptures an entire town.
The Malena in question (played by Monica Bellucci) is a smoldering beauty, the daughter of an elderly Latin teacher and wife to a man who has just gone off to fight for Mussolini. Men ogle her, women gossip about her, and all the adolescent boys fantasize about her.
Our hero, the narrator, is 13-year-old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), a quiet, mid-pubescent lad eager to wear long pants and sit in the grownups’ barber chair. He, too, dreams of being with Malena, and he comes to resent the leering and coarseness with which everyone else treats her. She is HIS, after all; he loves her, and how dare these foolish boys speak so crudely about her!
Renato’s obsession with Malena is cute, in its way, and should be familiar to anyone who has ever had a childhood crush. Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes he’s heroically rescuing her, sometimes he sees the two of them together in the movies he watches. He spies on her, alone in her house, and buys the record (“Ma L’amore No”) he hears her listening to.
After Malena’s husband is killed in the war, she must take desperate measures to keep from starving. This leads to the film’s most startling scenes as depth is added to the character of Malena, who is made even more mysterious by having only a handful of dialogue.
“Malena” has the same warm, whimsical, slightly sophomoric tone of “Cinema Paradiso,” and is full of rich, funny characters. Renato himself is pleasant and real-looking — not one of those primped teen-age pretty boys you see in Hollywood teen flicks — and has an understated acting style that carries the film well.
His parents (Luciano Federico and Matilde Piana) are hysterical caricatures of Italian mamas and papas, communicating mostly by slapping and screaming. (At one point, Mom’s piercing shriek fades into an air-raid siren, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell when one sound stops and the other starts.) Such an outrageous portrayal would be dismissed as an unkind stereotype, were the writer and director of the film not an Italian himself.
This is one of those films that conveys a feeling more than an idea. But nothing this amusing and charismatic could ever fairly be dubbed “pointless.”
A- (; )