Malèna (2000) from ICMS and Tuna

ICMS comments in white: 

As I told you last time I also ordered a copy of "Malèna" starring Monica Bellucci at that Italian on-line DVD retailer. On the website it said that the DVD also had English sound. Guess what, no English sound at all, only Italian DD 5.1 and DTS. Luckily I understand a little bit of Italian and there were Italian subtitles for the hearing impaired so I was able to follow the movie with the help of an Italian-Dutch dictionary. Also the dialogue in this movie plays a secondary role. It only supports the beautiful images, the feelings, the scenery, the music etc...The music score is by Ennio Morricone and was written before they started filming! They even played the music on the set to help the actors get into their roles. 

I have to say that I enjoyed this film very much. Really a fine piece of work by director Giuseppe Tornatore. "Malèna" starts in 1940 and tells us the story of a beautiful woman, Malèna, played by Monica Bellucci, who is resented and rejected by the women of the small Sicilian town she lives in because she's too beautiful and thus a threat to their husbands and sons, who all lust after her (who can blame them), including 13 year old Renato. Part of the film shows us the boy's imaginings, and how he hangs around Malèna, who doesn't seem to take notice. Then the focus of the movie shifts toward Malèna herself and we witness the bad things that happen to her. She lives as an outcast and her husband is an Italian soldier who gets killed in action. As a widow she is unable to survive on the army pension so she starts seeing Italian army officers for money and food, then she also goes after the German officers. Meanwhile the people in the town get more and more jealous of her and when Sicily is liberated by 1943, Malèna really cops the flack. Profiting from the power vacuum that occurred, the women drag Malèna into the streets, strip her naked, beat her up and cut off her hair and chase her out of the town. She then ends up working in whorehouses all over Sicily. 

Then there is a surprise ending in which Renato has a small but active part, maybe a bit corny, but surprising nevertheless. No, I'm not telling, you'll have to see it for yourself.



see the main commentary
Some reviewers find the scene where Malèna is publicly humiliated a example of misogyny. Well it most certainly isn't. Director Giuseppe Tornatore has merely filmed what really happened in those days just after the liberation when the old rulers had already left and the new ones weren't in place yet. In fact here in Belgium much worse cases of such violence by the so-called decent people occurred. Many of those women were not only stripped stark naked in public, had their hair cut off and were beaten up by the mob, they also had swastikas painted on them, were locked up in houses where they were repeatedly raped and ultimately convicted to prison sentences in a court of law. So, in the film this part certainly wasn't exaggerated.
Now let's take a look at the exposure in this film. Most of it comes from Monica Bellucci. There is one instance in which Renato, the boy, can catch a glimpse of Monica's breast. Several others happen in his imagination. There's also some nudity by Elisa Morucci. This film is her only credit in the IMDb. She plays the role of a prostitute. You see, Renato's fantasies make him masturbate so often that his parents can't sleep anymore. Renato's room is above theirs and his bed is really making loud creaking noises. So what does a father in Sicily do? He takes his son to a brothel so he can lose some of his energy  (my dad never took me to a brothel, dammit) and in the end he imagines that the prostitute is Malèna. This episode also illustrates the slight irony in some parts of the movie.

Can we learn something from this film? Yes we can. It teaches us that we shouldn't reject people because they are somewhat different from us and it certainly teaches us that we shouldn't judge people on prejudices, hearsay and wrong assumptions, but rather on proven facts and reality. The film also shows that people's morals can change really fast. One day they still cheering the fascists, the next day they all welcome the American troops that liberated Sicily. 

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Malèna (2000) is being released on region 1 DVD next week, and I had my copy in hand yesterday when I read the excellent review by ICMS. I moved it to the top of the queue, and thanks to ICMS, had a very enjoyable day. This film written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paridiso) is really three films in one, and any of the three would have made a fine film. It is an historical drama, covering WWII from Mussolini's declaration of war in 1941 through the American liberation in a small Sicilian town. Second, it is the story of a young woman whose husband is fighting in Africa and has moved into the same village. Third, it is a coming of age/loss of innocence story about a young man.

I, and several other reviewers thought the film was really about the woman, but Berardinelli saw the coming of age story as the main plot, and awarded three stars. After watching a short but informative making of featurette, I found the director agrees with Berardinelli. Ebert, like his review of Erin Brockovich where he only saw Robert's cleavage and said that totally ruined the film, panned this one because the camera stared at Monica Bellucci's body parts. As in Brockovich, where the real person used her cleavage anytime it gave her an advantage, the focus here on body parts was not gratuitous. We are seeing the story through the eyes of an adolescent boy. The camera does what he would, or, for that matter, almost any man who didn't think he was being watched would do.

The history aspect of the film is interesting, in that the remote village people have a simplistic view of what is happening. First, they are ecstatic that Mussolini is finally promoting Italian nationalism, and life doesn't change much locally. The mood begins to change as food and goods become scarcer, and friends die in combat. Life is much worse during German occupation, then they feel free again with American liberation.

The story of the title character, Malèna (Monica Bellucci), is, for me, at least 50% of the value of the film. Malèna is living without a man, and is seen as a threat by every woman in town, who, riddled with poor self image, are afraid Malèna will steal their men. In all fairness, Malèna is something of a flirt, and certainly knows what effect she has on men, and the men and boys of the town certainly notice her, but she is faithful to her husband, and is pretty much alone as she is ostracized by the women of the town. When her husband is reported killed in action, the paranoia of the women reaches new heights, as do the hopes of the men. After a suitable mourning period, she starts accepting visits from a single soldier her age. After the second visit, the soldier is accosted by the married dentist, who threatens him if he doesn't leave his "fiancee" Malèna alone.

With this accusation against Malèna, she is hauled into court, charged with home-wrecking. Her lawyer, a man so repulsive he is still single, gets her off, but demands sex as payment. The women of the town now refuse even to sell her food, and she is forced to trade sexual favors in exchange for scraps of bread and sugar. When the Germans occupy, she gives in completely, and sleeps with many of them. When the American liberators arrive, the women take advantage of the temporary lapse in authority to beat her nearly senseless in the public square, cut off all of her hair, and force her out of town. This is clearly not an act of misogyny, or hatred of women, but rather amazing cruelty born of the insecurity of the women of the town.

The main plot is a coming of age story of young  Renato Amoroso (played by newcomer Giuseppe Sulfaro). As the film opens, he gets a new bike, and is allowed to join a group of older boys based on this new status symbol, in spite of the fact that he is still in knee pants (short pants short dick). They are the ones that point out Malèna to him, and he falls instantly in love. For those who doubt that a young boy can fall in love with on older woman, let me say that, at age 4, I fell completely and irrevocably in love with a young woman in her 20s who worked with my mother. She promised to wait for me to grow up and reach her age. If you are out there, Cora May, I still haven't forgiven you for not waiting for me 50 years ago. Renato skips school to follow her, spies in her window, steals a pair of her panties from the clothesline, and is otherwise completely absorbed by her. 

The crush is shown humorously at first, but becomes more serious as the film progresses, and we see what is happening to Malèna through his eyes and ears. Renato knows that the accusations against her are lies as he spends much of his time watching through her window, but, of course, can't defend her. In one example of the humor, he is fantasizing about her (his fantasies are in B&W, and usually film homages), and bopping the bologna on a bed with old fashioned springs in the room above his parents. His father hears the springs, and yells "You are going to go blind." Does he stop? Of course not, but the fantasy immediately changes to one where he is blind, and lovingly caressing her face. Later, we see him sniffing the panties he stolen. Then we see his father coming into his room the next morning and catching him wearing the black frilly panties over his head. The father calls him a pervert and starts hitting him, the mother decides that he is possessed by a devil, his sister asks if she can keep them because they are pretty, and mom burns them in the toilet.

Later in the film, it is decided that Renato is indeed possessed, but his father knows better, says that the women are all crazy, and that any boy with a dick "that big" needs a woman. The father takes him to a whore house. Renato states, in a letter that he doesn't have the nerve to deliver, that the only pure love is unrequited love, and indeed, in the closing narration, says that she is the only woman he has never forgotten.

Renato is the perfect plot device to follow what happens to Malèna, and Malèna is the perfect fantasy woman for Renato. Bellucci had to overcome the prejudice against models trying acting, but proved more than equal to the task. Tornatore actually wrote the script for her. He had the germs of the plot in his head for years, but meeting Bellucci, he realized he had his Malèna. As he has done with 6 of his 7 films, he brought composer Ennio Morricone onto the project before the script was finished. Morricone, who was nominated for an Oscar for his score, feels that Tornatore has a musical pace and feel to his directing, and the two are magic together.

Tornatore and DP Lajos Koltai (who also received an Oscar nomination) created visual magic. There is a classic Morucci image. The left, or weak third of the image has several objects in sharp focus, balancing the frame. The strong, or right third of the image, shows Renato out of focus and staring at the center third. The room is bathed in red light, but the open door that Renato is staring through is lit with white light, and the hooker who most resembles Malèna is visible in the "white light of heaven," and is where he, and, because of the frame composition, we, are staring. I at first thought the red room was a post production filter, but the pink and white glow on the door show that it was done with lighting. So, based on framing and lighting, we realize that he is still in love with Malèna, and has found the hooker most like her to be with. In the middle image of the top strip, we see the boys watching Malèna as she walks down the street. A more usual approach would be a long tracking shot, 1st person POV, of her walking by. Tornatore chose to let us watch the boys watching her, even though it was a more difficult shot.

Another one of my favorites - an image of Bellucci in a classic Botticelli pose. 

In case you haven't been able to tell so far, I adored this film. All three elements work for me, the production values are award caliber (in an easier year, this would have been a strong contender for best foreign film, and did get a nomination for the Golden Globes), and the themes are fresh and fascinating. The film covers an amazing amount of ground for 92 minutes. The Italian version is 105 minutes, and, based on the ICMS review, I think some of those extra minutes are in the scene with the hooker. The Region 1 DVD has decent English subtitles, and the transfer is very good. This is a solid B, and would be even higher if there was a clean English dub version for those that can't do subtitles. 


Tuna's additional comments on the Region 2 DVD:

The big news, however, is what was cut from the US version.

First of all, full frontal nudity from both Bellucci and Morucci was gone. Several fantasy scenes where Renato saw Malena naked were cut, especially one where he imagines her in his room with him. The amount of masturbation by Renato was cut. The whorehouse sequence was severely cut. First, the downstairs, where all of the woman are propositioning Renato was shortened to the point that I didn't get any useful caps the first time through. Second, the scene in the room with Morucci was butchered. The deleted the portion where she undresses him, and his Willie jumps out at attention. They also cut her full frontal. They also drastically cut the scene where the women beat Malena.

The cuts smell very strongly of MPAA mandates in order to secure a rating. I can just hear them:

1) Lose the full frontal
2) Get rid of Renato nudity
3) Severely reduce the masturbation
4) The beating sequence is FAR too explicit and violent.

Does it make a difference? You may recall that I loved the US version. The Italian version is even better. There is more humor in the uncut version, we get a better feel for Renatto's obsession with both sex and Malena, and the beating scene has far more impact in the full version. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • this is the region 1 DVD, not the one mentioned in the ICMS review

Scoop's comments in aqua: 

ICMS and Tuna covered the bases accurately and thoroughly, but I want to stick in my support for their positions. It's a terrific movie. A sure sign of greatness in a work of literature, filmed or written, is the ability to master complex tone changes seamlessly - to move from comedy to tragedy, from sexy to funereal, from grim to slapstick, from fantasy to reality and back. The film does that beautifully, in such a way as to magnify each of the elements by contrasting it with the others. 

One other item: the other two guys didn't mention the individual elements of the musical score. It consisted of beautiful period music, ranging from pop to neo-classical, and supported the action vividly.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 3/4.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 51% positive overall, 35% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2, 
  • With their dollars ... it grossed only $3 million in the USA on 28 screens (arthouse distribution)
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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