[Contains knicker-stealing SPOILERS!!!]
I assumed that misleading DVD covers were the preserve of obscure low-budget indie flicks, but apparently they’re now spreading to prestigious, foreign-language Oscar-bait too! The cover of Malèna (2000) is dominated by a photograph of Monica Bellucci as the eponymous eye-catcher, so you (and I) might be forgiven for thinking that she was the main character, when in reality she’s barely a character at all. If you took the time to read the back cover blurb (which I did not), you’d realise that this is in fact a coming-of-age tale about an adolescent Italian boy, living in 1940’s Sicily, who develops an all-consuming crush on a young war-widow (Malèna), and spends his days stalking her around town, spying on her private life, and then masturbating under the covers at night. Meh.
The problem here is that there’s absolutely nothing unusual or interesting about the boy’s own life or experiences… he could be pretty much any heterosexual boy, in any period of history. Malèna’s story, on the other hand, is a rare and (potentially) fascinating one, tied inextricably to the political and social turmoil of the period… so it’s incredibly frustrating that we are only ever allowed the briefest glimpses of her travails, traumas and trials, via an immature, unrelated observer. Perhaps this distance and detachment was intentional, as part of a larger comment on objectification and romanticisation, but the end result is that it’s damn near impossible to sympathise with her, or invest in her downfall, because we’re constantly kept at a distance.
The scene where the local women work out their long-simmering jealousy by beating her, tearing her clothes, and cutting off her hair, leaving her exposed, bloody, and whining like a dying animal, should be intensely disturbing and affecting… it’s the sort of thing that would reduce me to a sobbing mess in a more tonally consistent and emotionally engaging film… but here, all it inspires is an appreciation for Bellucci’s courage and commitment as an actress. Even worse is the scene where the boy watches Malèna being raped by her scumbag lawyer, and then scurries away without raising the slightest protest, or alarm. He’s perfectly happy to punish anyone who insults her behind her back (by peeing in their purse, or breaking their shop window), but when someone physically abuses her, he just lets it slide and goes back to his wanking… because apparently calling someone a “slut” out-of-earshot is a worse crime than raping them? WTF!? Then, via his narration, he “forgives” her for betraying his romantic ideal by stating that this was just her way of paying for the guy’s legal services! It’s hard to know if this was intended as a comment on the boy’s naiveté, or the ignorance and chauvinism of the time, but it kinda made me want to punch both him and the movie itself… which is implicitly suggesting that a boy’s feelings after witnessing a rape are more important than the victim’s feelings. Shudder.
There are basically three story threads running through this movie… the first concerns a young boy learning a hard lesson about first love, the second concerns a young woman being punished for her beauty and desirability, and the third concerns women in occupied countries consorting with the enemy. Sadly, writer-director Tornatore chose to focus on the laziest and least interesting of these threads, while paying insultingly short-shrift to the other two.
I also had an issue with the general tone of the piece… the first half plays like a bad cartoon, populated by the sort of grotesque stereotypes that only a native would be able to get away with (although why he’d want to perpetuate them at all is a mystery), and fuelled by a sort of overly-jovial misanthropy: “We’re all worthless pigs, driven by our basest instincts… LOL!!!” So when it tries to shift gears into melodrama, there’s no real foundation for the feelings it’s trying to draw out of the viewer… and the “one year later” coda just left me cold and mildly confused. Reading summaries of the story, I see that I’m supposed to read Malèna’s return to the town with her (not-dead-after-all) husband as an act of “courage”, but really it reads as inexplicable stupidity. Why even visit a place where you were raped, beaten, and abused, and where (as far as you know) everyone still totally despises you for no good reason, let alone move back there? It’s clearly a self-hating and potentially suicidal act, so why is it pitched as a feel-good triumph by Tornatore? It’s really no different from a character in a horror movie re-entering the cabin where she’s just been attacked by a chainsaw-wielding madman… except at least they’d have the excuse of acting crazy in the heat of the moment, whereas Malèna had a full twelve months away from this wicked little town to shake off her Stockholm Syndrome! GAH!!!
[Note: Apparently I watched the censored “American” cut, rather than the original Italian version, which included an additional fifteen minutes of footage (a detailed (and NSFW) account of the excised material can be found on the Movie Censorship website). So, I’m open to the suggestion that I haven’t seen the best possible version of this movie… but since my major issue is with the way the director venerates “The Male Gaze” over all else, I highly doubt that explicit nudity would have made me hate it any less… more likely, the opposite].