Synopsis: The latest triumph from Giuseppe Tornatore, the writer and director of the Academy Award®-winning Cinema Paradiso, Malena is an utterly unforgettable story of a boy’s journey into manhood amid the chaos and intolerance of World War II! In a sleepy Italian village, the most beautiful woman in town, Malena (Monica Bellucci), becomes the subject of increasingly malicious gossip among the lustful townsmen and their jealous wives. But only her most ardent admirer, young Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), will learn the untold true story of the mysterious and elusive Malena! In a captivating motion picture nominated for two Academy Awards®, the eventual struggles and hardships that Malena must bravely endure serve to inspire Renato to new heights of compassion, courage and independence!
eyelights: Monica Bellucci. the touching yet heartbreaking story. the gorgeous production.
eyesores: the cgi effects. the discrepant music during the harrowing sequences.
“From now on, I’ll be at your side. Forever, I promise. Just give me time to grow up.”
Giuseppe Tornatore’s ‘Malèna’ is a film I fell in love with when it was released on home video back in 2001. It was also the movie that introduced me to Monica Bellucci, who plays the titular character. While these are hardly a coincidences, what I truly fell in love with is that the film takes the perspective of Renato, the teenaged boy through whose eyes we watch Malèna’s life. By doing this, Tornatore has pushed us to empathize with two protagonists at once. And I felt for both.
Taking place in Italy during World War II, ‘Malèna’ is the story of a beautiful young housewife who has been transplanted into a new town with her husband just before he gets sent to the front. Alone, with no friends and only her father (who is Renato’s school teacher) to talk to, she becomes a victim of the townsfolk’s gossip and her quiet life spirals downward. Her only ally is Renato, who watches her intently from afar, unable to muster up the courage to intervene.
It’s a tragic story, and it’s twofold:
1. On the one hand, there’s the fact that Malèna is a good person and has done no one any harm; she is dignified and quiet. If anything, she is trapped by her beauty and people’s prejudices: the drama that unfolds is out of her control – or, at least, is out of her sphere of control (in this day and age, she would likely react differently and have other opportunities). To watch a good human being get torn apart is always torture. To make her such a beautiful creature only makes it worse.
2. On the other hand, the tragedy in this story is Renato’s inability to help the woman he loves. There is no mistake: Renato is completely enamoured with Malèna, in that intense way that new love can be – he romanticizes everything about her and fantasizes about her all the time. But he watches the object of his affection get defiled because he couldn’t muster the strength to prevent it. Which he could have. Many times over. This becomes the destruction of his innocence.
I’ve wept every single time that I’ve watched ‘Malèna’. I’ve felt the powerful spiritual and physical longing that Renato feels here and I can’t even fathom how disastrous this event must be for him, to have one’s heart broken over and over again. To have it mixed up with guilt must be soul-hollowing. And then there’s the injustice that Malèna is subjected to: as the film unfolds, we empathize with her more and more – and yet things only get worse for her. It just isn’t fair.
To be honest, a part of me falls in love with Malèna at the same time as Renato does. Seeing her through his eyes, I understand exactly why he’s so taken with, and I am as well. And although my love isn’t nearly as potent as his would be (I am watching a film, after all), I’m as powerless as he is in watching her downfall. But I wish I could save her. Like Renato, I wish to take her away from all these troubles and allow her to shine in the way that she should have been destined to.
When ‘Malèna’ was released in North America, the infamous Weinstein brothers (who ran Miramax, the studio that distributed it at the time) had the film edited down for its North American release. It took me years to find this out because it isn’t even available on home video here. So, since 2001, I had been watching a film significantly altered from its original vision: from 109 minutes to 92 minutes. It is available overseas, however, and I recently decided to hunt down a copy.
This was my first time watching the original film, as intended by Giuseppe Tornatore.
In effect, they are significantly different motion pictures. Whereas the Weinstein cut focused on the tragedy, the Tornatore cut focuses on the nostalgic side of it more, and on the absurdity of what transpired. The tone is entirely different, which means that North American audiences were moved by the “wrong” things. It’s not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, however: it just means that it’s not at all the same experience – like comparing the director and theatrical cuts of ‘Blade Runner‘.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the Tornatore cut – no doubt because I’m already so invested in the Weinstein cut: what it does is that it adds a whole bunch of fantasy sequences, in which Renato imagines himself capturing Malèna’s attention, rescuing her, comforting her, and even having sex with her. Many of the sequences are informed by the motion pictures he’s watched and they are theatrical and over the top. They are contextually appropriate, but they are meant to be humourous.
It works, but the humour bleeds into some of the more tragic aspects of the film. For instance, Ennio Morricone’s score is ironically playful when Malèna gets abused by the men and beaten to a pulp by the women. For me, this stripped away much of the horror in what I was watching; if anything, the music should have been particularly grim because it should have contrasted with Renato’s idealistic daydreams. It should have been a wake up call for him and for the audience.
To me, Malèna’s fate is nothing to make light of.
But I appreciated the quality of the new material: it’s exactly the types of daydreams I would have had in that situation and sometimes still do now (one can get lost in romantic notions at times). But it changes the balance entirely: whereas the Weinstein cut equally divides it between Renato and Malèna, the Tornatore cut makes it Renato’s film. He is the central figure, even as his life revolves around Malèna. In the Weinstein cut, he is the spectator, watching Malèna passively.
Malèna is worth caressing with one’s eyes: as incarnated by Monica Bellucci, then 36, Malèna is a breathtakingly beautiful woman – natural, voluptuous, incredibly sexy. She is dignified, composed, like walking porcelain. Amazing. Bellucci barely gets any lines, but she gets tons of screen time (even more so in the Tornatore cut, due to Renato’s fantasies) and every moment is godsend. Clothed or bared, she is stunning: one has no doubt that she would capture the attentions of the townsfolk.
Also gorgeous is the cinematography; Tornatore had an eye for making this old Italian town look fantastic. There wasn’t a moment in the picture that didn’t make you want to visit, even when the town suffered at the tail end of the war: the architecture, the stone courtyards, the seaside walkways, it was all quite a sight. He even made the film’s inhabitants, most of whom were average-looking (and all paled in comparison to Malèna, naturally) look remarkable in their own way.
‘Malèna’ is fabulous motion picture. It’s one of my all-time favourites: it takes me away, outside of myself, makes me dream, fantasize, laugh, cry and revisit feelings I haven’t felt in ages. Yes, it’s heart-wrenching, if not devastating, but any movie that can tap into real experiences and true emotions and bring them to the surface is worth seeing. It may not have the same impact for everyone, depending on what one relates or connects to, but there’s no denying that it’s superb stuff.
And while I currently appreciate the Weinstein version tonally (I’d likely give it a 9.0), I suspect that it’s just a question of time before I come around to this one. They’re both valid visions, but they are different ones. And they should both be seen, compared, and savoured.
Date of viewing: July 14, 2014