MALÈNA earned two Oscar nominations in 2000, for the clean, period-evocative cinematography from Lajos Koltai and Ennio Morricone’s typically elegant scoring. If they gave one for Most Arresting Sensual Presence, it would have gone to the breath-halting Monica Bellucci for her smoldering incarnation of the title character.
A small sea-side town in Sicily, the early 1940s. As hopeful, Fascism-blinded Italy jubilantly enters WW2, naive, hormone-drowned ‘Renato Amoroso’ (Giuseppe Sulfaro) pedals heart-first into his teens and amore immortale with the object of the town’s envies, lusts and suspicions, breathtaking war-widow ‘Maléna Scordia’ (Bellucci). As the war turns against them, the jealous citizens turn on the mysterious and provocative woman. All but the infatuated boy, whose ardor and worship turns to concern and respect as he watches his beset donna ideale, forced by loneliness, circumstance and survival into despair, compromise and persecution.
Lovingly directed & written by Giuseppe Tornatore, this Mediterranean Summer of ’42, like that 1971 favorite, goes from the gaucherie of adolescent comedy to the bitter scourge of tragedy, bumptiously navigating various shades of humor and shards of painful drama. The first act is a little iffy, some of the (intended) coarse joking off-putting; the second act sharpens some up real laughs and deepens with detailed observations of the two principal’s principles and the clamoring conjectures of their community; act 3 a bracing dose of reality, ruin and redemption. Stick with it and, like the title subject, it weaves a spell, sensuous and seductive, startling and sad.
Lushly produced, the palpable sense of time and place is top-drawer work, with can’t-miss Sicilian locations around Syracuse, Messina and Trapani (plus a few shots in Morocco), superbly photographed. Morricone’s score is sliest in the rolling gait deployed when the stunning Monica/Maléna strolls in measured dignity through the gossipy throng. Gilberto Idonea is a highlight as ‘Centorbi’, the advocate who makes a magnificently stirring comic speech defending maligned Malèna in court.
Young Sulfaro, in his first time out, does well, smartly not overplaying Renato’s furtive fumbling. The bellisima Bellucci, who has to create most of her character with little dialogue, is intoxicating, her unashamed display of—well, pretty much everything—rapturously sexy not because she merely has a striking face and naturally curvaceous form, but that—like classic sister Italian movie goddesses Loren & Cardinale, Lisi & Rossellini—she conveys soul depth, erotic intensity, native intelligence and natural grace to go with it.
Superbly picked cast includes Luciano Federico, Matilde Piana, Pietro Notarianni and Gaetano Aronica. Cut for the US to 92 minutes: seek the 109-minute version. Box-office came to $14,400,000.
Un giovanotto Sulfaro, 15 at the time of filming, said the first live nude woman he’d ever seen was 36-year-old Monica Bellucci: unless the Universe is out of whack, this ought to have had a profound impact on his life. Sei un bastardo fortunato…