Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena opens in 1940 as Mussolini declares war on England and France; a fascist blackshirt stands in the sunroof of a car rolling through the narrow streets of a Sicilian town, bellowing to the residents to drop everything and tune their radios for Il Duce’s announcement. But for 12-year-old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) the day has a more important resonance: it’s the day he gets his very own bicycle, and the day he first sees Malena.
Malena (Monica Bellucci) is the wife of a soldier who is fighting in North Africa for the greater glory of Mussolini’s New Roman Empire. As she strolls through the town, Malena gazes ahead with an expression of serene composure on her alabaster face, seemingly oblivious to the heads turning in her wake. And all heads turn to watch Malena. Renato and his pals gaze with inchoate hormonal longing, the men with awe-struck hopelessness. As for the women of the town, they glare sidelong at Malena with hostile suspicion; any woman that beautiful and sure of herself must be up to no good.
Renato’s fantasies about the unattainable beauty take the form of the movies he sees; one night he’s Pepe le Moko enticing her to the Casbah, the next night he’s the Ringo Kid servicing her while shooting Indians through the stagecoach window (“Oh Renato, you’ve got the biggest gun in the West!”). These early scenes are funny, but the laughs have a second-hand air about them. When Renato oils the springs in his bed so he can masturbate without waking his father, it reminds us not of our own adolescence but of those horny boys in Fellini’s Amarcord, rocking in the back seat of that old car.
It’s when Tornatore moves away from this kind of bargain-rack Fellini that Malena takes on a life of its own. Word comes that Malena’s husband has been killed in Africa, and with the news Malena’s life takes a turn for the worse. First comes the increased resentment of the townswomen; they’re convinced that, now that this flimsy obstacle has been removed, nothing will keep Malena from turning to their pudgy, ill-smelling husbands for comfort. They lean back complacently waiting for the slut in her to assert herself. Malena doesn’t stand a chance—from that point on her fall becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Renato looks on helplessly, seeing Malena grow more isolated and debased as the war turns more and more against Italy. His fantasies of rescuing her become less comical and more forlorn, but he knows there’s nothing he can do. In a sense, Malena becomes a metaphor for Italy itself, from the early euphoria over Axis success as Mussolini hitched his wagon to Hitler’s star, through the inevitable turnaround to the bitterness and recrimination of defeat. Wisely, Tornatore doesn’t overplay the symbolism. He keeps the focus on Malena, on Renato’s schoolboy infatuation with her, and on the callousness of the townspeople in either exploiting or ignoring or bringing about what happens to her.
Italian supermodel Monica Bellucci plays Malena as an enigmatic blank; the woman herself seems less important to Tornatore than the reactions of the people around her, especially Renato. Young Giuseppe Sulfaro plays the boy with remarkable subtlety; he even manages to age convincingly from 12 to 17 in the course of the film.
Finally, as American soldiers march into the town on the heels of the retreating Germans, the local women’s envy and resentment of Malena boils over—and Tornatore places more demands on Bellucci than just to walk by and be ogled. The scene is almost nightmarishly haunting, but at the same time there’s something curiously bracing about it—or rather, about the fact that Tornatore even takes the story in that direction. Malena begins by radiating the kind of cozy nostalgia that has been Tornatore’s stock in trade ever since Cinema Paradiso, but it ends in a different place—rueful, tranquil and wise. The subject at hand is Renato’s coming of age, but we’re also seeing the maturing of Tornatore himself.