The dark side of beauty
Giuseppe Tornatore is one of those directors who takes charming nostalgic movies and strikes a chord in the heart of his audiences. He mostly makes period movies set in a small town of Sicily. Malena released in 2000 is said through the eyes of 12-year old Renato and is set in a 1940s small town of Sicily. Renato’s focus of attention is the most beautiful woman in the town, Malèna.
The story starts with an adult Renato remembering the day he got his first bicycle. The adult Renato narrates the events to us through a voiceover. The day Renato gets the bicycle is the day he is shown ogling at Malèna for the first time. In the beginning his feelings for her are purely lustful. For a boy who is just entering puberty this means that his hormones go haywire and his only concern becomes the goings on in his trousers. This makes the first half of the movie mostly funny to watch.
We also learn that it is not just Renato who has his eye on the voluptuous bombshell. The whole town has their eyes on Malèna for various reasons. You see, she is the wife of a soldier who has gone off to fight the Second World War. Hence the men of the town ogle and fantasize about taking advantage of this single woman. The women of the town are afraid that she will take their husbands away from them. And all of them resort to vile gossiping about her. The whole town indulgences in this when she takes cross town strolls dressed all elegant and glamorous.
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Renato is taken over by lust and follows Malèna around wherever she goes without her noticing him. He in the process learns more about Malèna and sees the real person that she is underneath all the glamour. For instance he learns that her regular strolls across the town are to visit her almost deaf father, a professor of Latin, to help him with his household chores. By peeping into her house from a nearby tree he is able to see her pain and loneliness. Above all he sees her unfaltering love for her husband. He sees that she is not the slut that the townsfolk make her out to be.
But thing take a turn for Malèna as the war intensifies. People become more angry and vile towards her. Rumours of her husband’s death only intensify their attitude towards her. She is shunned and isolated by the women of the town. Even her relationship with her father suffers a catastrophic blow when a slanderous letter about her sexual immorality reaches his hands. He is later killed in a German bombing of the town.
Thereafter Malèna falls into hard times and in a bit to survive she becomes what the town always called her to be; a slut. She turns to prostitution and begins to even entertain the members of the invading German army. However when the war ends and the Germans retreat she is mentally and physically humiliated by the town’s women forcing her to leave the town. It is then that her husband returns from the war. What he does after that forms the rest of the movie.
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On the face of it Malèna is a simple sentimental movie. By underlying it is the theme of jealousy and hypocrisy. The women of the town are not able to hide their jealousy toward Malèna. The men are a case of sour grapes. Since they are not able to have her they invent wild rumours and thrash her reputation without remorse. It is also a coming of age movie. The young Renato, who first sees Malèna as only a sexual object see her as a human being towards the end of the movie. In the process he also learns more about the cruelty of life.
The movies visuals are breathtaking every time Monica Bellucci walks on the screen. Beautiful would be a word too inadequate to describe how she looks in this movie. You can’t but help identify with the boy who fantasies about her all the time. She doesn’t even have anything to do for a majority of the movie other than to look great. She doesn’t even have a dialogue through major portions of the movie. But she shows that she is not just a beautiful face when she handles the complex final scenes with ease.
The young boy Giuseppe Sulfaro plays the other central character of the film Renato. He plays the role with a talent that belies his age. He displays the right emotions and leaves no one in doubt as to what is going through his head.
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Tornatore’s direction is creditable. He easily gives us a view of what Renalto is seeing. He makes us go through the same feelings that Renalto goes through. We feel the same lust for Malèna, we feel the sense to try and help her in some way and like Renalto we to feel helpless and sad about the misery that she goes through. The music is as haunting and poignant as the movie itself. Malèna is overall a beautiful, charming and haunting movie that you will remember long after you have seen it.