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With: Monica Bellucci, Giuseppe Sulfaro
Written by: Giuseppe Tornatore, based on a short story by Luciano Vincenzoni
Directed by: Giuseppe Tornatore
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity, language and some violence
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 92
Date: 25/12/2000
IMDB

Malèna (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Curse of Beauty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Malèna (Monica Bellucci) first emerges from her house and walks down the Sicilian seaside road, it's hard not to be impressed. She's truly a thing of beauty. Sitting there in the dark, I was unable to suppress a gasp.

Though Malèna is the title character, we soon learn that this is actually Renato Amoroso's (Giuseppe Sulfaro's) story. Renato is a 13 year-old hormone-riddled boy whose fantasy world is awakened that day when he first sees Malèna. In fact, we never see anything from Malèna's point of view. We never get to know her through Renato's glowing version of her. Yet somehow, in this new film written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), Malèna materializes as a fully-drawn character; blessed and cursed with incredible beauty, drenched in sadness.

It's the early 1940's in a small Sicilian village, just before the Germans move in. Renato has normal 13 year-old concerns on his mind; movies, music, and his first bicycle. He wants to join a gang of older boys, but his interests soon turn toward Malèna. He fancies himself the only one who truly understands her, and in fact, he may be. The townspeople begin to see her as a tease and a whore. And they make their own accusations come true. They refuse to give Malèna a job, and as a result, she begins sleeping with powerful townspeople and German officers to keep from going hungry.

Tornatore allows Renato to get close to Malèna only in his imagination. When the news arrives that her husband has died, Renato imagines himself consoling her, offering to be at her side forever. He also imagines himself in black-and-white movies with her. He even buys a record that he overhears Malèna listening to, and goes so far as to swipe a pair of exotic black panties from her clothesline. At home, he's forced to oil the springs in his bed so his father won't catch him in the act of exotic rapture.

Malèna could have been horribly one-sided and even sexist, but Tornatore brilliantly balances these delicate elements (with help from a fine score by the legendary Ennio Morricone). Even though we never get inside Malèna's head, we begin to empathize with her. We're allowed to see glimpses of the real person, the one that could never live up to the woman in Renato's imagination. That's thanks to Bellucci's body language, her eyes, her face, and the way she walks. We also empathize with Renato, trapped in the pains and pleasures of life's first great passion, the one we never forget. The film gets its energy by tapping into that secret excitement. It emerges as a fully-fleshed out portrait, swirled in sweetness and nostalgia.

DVD Details: I'm not surprised, but I hadn't realized that Miramax's 2000 theatrical release of this film had been cut by about 15 minutes. An excellent new two-disc import set puts the movie all back together. It now comes complete with more of Renato's erotic fantasies surrounding Malena, as well as a few more sexy surprises. These scenes may or may not improve the film, but they do make one question the prudery of American censors. The second disc comes with several featurettes, interviewing director Tornatore as well as legendary composer Morricone, but none of these shorts are available with English subtitles. (The film itself comes with optional English and Korean subtitles.) This import DVD is a Region 0, NTSC disc, which is playable on all United States DVD players. Of course, Malena is still available in the easy-to-find censored American DVD.

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