Skin deep

Malena fails to scratch surface of a boy's first crush

Sometimes there's a fine line between stories that portray the sexual pangs of adolescence and those that pander to them. When a Fellini or a Philip Roth reminisce about an early carnal experience or the first object of lust, the basic facts of the scene may differ little from one in a movie with a word like "Porky's" or "Pie" in the title. The difference lies in whether the moment strives to reveal anything more than supple flesh.
Malena wraps its nostalgic view of sexual awakening in rich details and canny insights into human behavior, although at times it leers at Monica Belluci's eponymous character as much as any hormone-addled teenaged boy. Giuseppe Tornatore, director of Cinema Paradiso, offers another bittersweet memory piece about an Italian childhood, which displays both striking physical beauty and disquieting ugliness of character.
In the opening scene, set up by an elderly narrator, 12-year-old Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) gets his first bicycle on the day that Italy enters World War II. In the small fishing village he calls home, Renato glides past houses and cafes where radios blare Mussolini's announcement, and the fluid restlessness of his travel sets a tone of constant motion for much of the rest of the film.
Hanging out with a group of boys old enough to wear long pants, Renato first sets eyes on Malena Scordia (Belucci) as she goes on a walk, and his perceptions of womanhood change forever. Malena becomes the leading lady of his dreams and waking fantasies, which include particularly amusing imitations of black-and-white films about Tarzan, cowboys or gladiators.
In fact, Renato becomes so obsessed that he becomes a combination of Peeping Tom and guardian angel. When he's not shadowing her every move, he's avenging the nasty villagers who gossip about Malena, secretly leaving his spittle (or worse) in their coffee. Unlike sexual initiation stories like Summer of '42, though, Malena seems destined to remain eternally unaware of Renato's existence.
Bellucci has surprisingly little dialogue in the film, which leaves you with only a vague impression of her acting skills (although she's unquestionably comely, appearing on the cover of this month's Esquire wearing nothing but caviar). Renato must learn through observation and eavesdropping about the death of her husband and how the deprivations of war force her into increasingly desperate measures to survive.
Rarely does Tornatore resist showing Belluci in a sultry, half-dressed close-up, when Renato's voyeuristic point of view would be tantalizingly distant. But to say that the film objectifies the Malena character is to miss the point, in that everyone in the film judges her almost solely based on her sexuality. Showing off her figure on strolls through the town square, she's eyed and ogled by Renato's peers and grown-up women alike, and viewed with loathing by puritanical wives and mothers.
Not only does Malena become the talk of the town, but a vessel for the villagers aspirations and resentments, especially during the pressures of wartime. And though Renato is the main character, he's also part of the crowd that stares at her at funerals, a sordid courtroom trial and, near the end, a shocking act of public humiliation and violence that transpires the day the Allies liberate the town.
Tornatore might be offering a parallel between how attractive people like Malena and dictators like Il Duce can influence mob mentality. But Malena is less interested in politics than a depiction of small-town life during the war years. At times the details are tough and telling, like the way refugees overrun Malena's house when she's moved to a hotel, or in the casual cigarette the 15-year-old Renato smokes, suggesting that wartime has caused him to grow up hard. The cinematography stays consistently lush and colorful, with an air-raid offering gorgeous visuals but deadly consequences.
The first half of the film often goes for broad comedy. When Renato's father catches him in an adolescent transgression, he causes a scene that involves smacking Renato, his siblings, his wife, even the neighbors. Renato's obsession causes his parents to lock him in his room for days and send him to an exorcist until his father, in his kindliest gesture, takes him to a brothel (where he chooses the prostitute who looks most like you-know-who).
Though often funny, Malena's opinion of the Italian people proves so uncharitable it would border on defamation were the filmmaker not Italian himself. Malena's defense attorney gesticulates so flamboyantly he seems on the verge of flying to pieces, although Sulfaro's wide-eyed watchfulness helps steady the story. The film often goes to extremes without delving past the surface of things, and we ultimately view Malena the film like we view Malena the character, admiring the beauty while rarely getting more than skin deep.