The spirit of Fellini is very much alive in Giuseppe Tornatore's "Malena", a frisky coming-of-age wartime allegory about a 13-year-old boy and the ravishing town beauty who kick-starts his raging hormones.
But the "Cinema Paradiso" director has more on his mind here than a Sicilian "Summer of '42". What begins as a nostalgic sex comedy inevitably falls prey to those darker fascist elements, but the resulting tonal shifts never completely blend into a satisfying whole.
Ultimately, the handsomely appointed film remains as emotionally elusive as its unattainable title character. While "Malena" could entice some modest art house business, Miramax won't be in "Paradiso".
With those dark, soulful eyes, young Giuseppe Sulfaro, who had no acting experience, makes for an ideal Renato. Convincingly at that awkward age, he suddenly finds himself having to sort out dueling sensations of lust and love for Malena (Monica Bellucci), the new girl on the block with a husband off at war whose every stroll through the seaside village of Castelcuto seems to turn all men into drooling idiots and all women into bitter gossip-mongers.
Those pangs of adolescent desire don't exactly sit well with Renato's parents, who deal with his sexually obsessed behavior by first sending him to a priest, then to an exorcist and finally, in an act of pure defeat, dropping him off at the local bordello.
Meanwhile, as World War II escalates, Malena has apparently become emblematic of the growing fear and paranoia of Italians everywhere. No longer regarded merely as the town tart, she has become reviled as a Jezebel who brazenly sleeps with the enemy and is all but tarred and feathered by an angry mob of women.
After the war is over, with feelings of hatred and despair giving way to forgiveness and hope, the people of Castelcuto and the maligned Malena likewise start anew, while Renato finally gets to wear his first pair of long pants.
It's not that Tornatore, who also wrote the script, goes particularly wrong anywhere in his telling of a short story originally penned by Luciano Vincenzoni. It's just that "Malena" feels like a compendium of any number of similarly themed coming-of-age films without the ability to mine any fresh, satisfying resonance in the assembly.
Credits: Director-screenwriter: Giuseppe Tornatore; Based on a story by: Luciano Vincenzoni; Producers: Harvey Weinstein, Carlo Bernasconi; Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Teresa Moneo, Fabrizio Lombardo, Mario Spedaletti; Director of photography: Lajos Koltai; Art director: Francesco Frigeri; Set designer: Bruno Cesari; Editor: Massimo Quaglia; Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti; Music: Ennio Morricone. Cast: Malena: Monica Bellucci; Renato: Giuseppe Sulfaro; Renato's father: Luciano Federico; Renato's mother: Matilde Piana; Professor Bonsignore: Pietro Notarianni; Nino Scordia: Gaetano Aronica. MPAA rating: R. Running time -- 94 minutes. Color/stereo.
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