The new film from the director of the highly acclaimed and immensely popular Cinema Paradiso has been described by some as Cinema Paradiso meets Summer of ’42, and while there is some justification for that glib assessment, Malena is a good bit more intelligent than that suggests. True, Tornatore (whose best film is probably the utterly grim A Pure Formality) is here making a coming-of-age story that shares certain points with Summer of ’42 — and he does blend this with the stylized and slightly fantasticated approach of his own Cinema Paradiso — but that hardly negates the charm, lyricism, inherent truthfulness and ultimate power of Malena. The film just misses greatness by a narrow margin. The story is fairy simple: An adolescent boy, Renato Amoroso (played by newcomer Giuseppe Sulfaro) develops a fixation on a woman, Malena Scordia (Monica Belluci, Under Suspicion), in wartime Sicily. Malena is the talk of the town, owing to the fact that she’s strikingly beautiful, openly sensual and presumably oversexed. The gossip is bad enough when her husband is away in the war (the locals just “know” a woman like that will take a lover), but it becomes that much worse when the news arrives that he’s been killed in action. Now, the hapless Malena is fair game for everyone’s fantasies. The intriguing thing about Tornatore’s approach to the material is that Renato and Malena never actually meet during the course of the film — except in his overheated melodramatic fantasies, which seem cobbled together from bad movies — yet, as he later puts it, he is the only one in town who actually knows her. But Renato knows her only from afar, and from his obsessive voyeuristic preoccupation. Still, he sees — and through him, we see — the true picture of a woman whose biggest crime is to be prettier and far less drab than the people surrounding her. The film is blessed with a healthily open vulgarity (much of it is quite funny), very unlike the leering, sneaky-minded vulgarity of Summer of ’42, but then Malena isn’t really about coming of age in the sense of a first sexual experience. Tornatore uses this material to reflect more on coming of age in the sense of understanding humanity — and it isn’t always pretty. The so-called “good people” of the village actually succeed in forcing Malena into becoming the woman they always thought she was, only to later turn on her — in an almost unbearably brutal sequence — and punish her for being what they wanted. Tornatore’s approach to the material is incredibly lyrical and sweeping. His camera is rarely still, and elaborate crane shots predominate the film, giving it a sense of spectacle, even though it’s basically a fairly intimate story. Conversely, his camera is deliberately rather static in the scenes depicting the Allied bombing of the village. Not only is this approach strangely chilling, but it drives home the director’s obvious belief that true spectacle is human interaction and not something that is merely big. So what keeps Malena from quite achieving greatness? The film finally falters somewhat by Tornatore’s decision to overly sentimentalize the impact of Malena on Renato, and in so doing comes up with an unnecessary summation that oversimplifies and threatens to trivialize the complexity of what has gone before. This misstep doesn’t by any means destroy the film, but it does bring it up short in the final analysis. However, for nearly all of its length up to that point, Malena is a film well worth watching.
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