Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, who won an Oscar in 1990 for his popular coming-of-age tale “Cinema Paradiso,” is in the running for similar recognition this year for his new film “Malena.” It too is a coming-of-age story, adapted from a short story by Luciano Vincenzoni, about a lad growing up in a small village during World War II who becomes infatuated with the title character, a gorgeous widow who’s the object of all the townsmen’s lust and all their wives’ envy. As the boy watches from afar, Malena is forced into prostitution by her financial woes, and after the liberation is abused and exiled by her jealous neighbors. Ultimately he’s able to assist her, a sign of his growing maturity.
Tornatore had read the story years ago, but, as he said through an interpreter in a recent Dallas interview, “I liked it, but I didn’t like it enough to think about actually making it into a film.” It wasn’t until Monica Bullucci, a famous model, came to his attention that he thought seriously about bringing it to the screen. “Monica Bellucci made the story come back into my mind,” Tornatore recalled, “and I said to myself, ‘She could do it well.'”
Tornatore set about adapting the tale, transferring the action to his native Sicily and adding the sort of affectionate references to films familiar from “Cinema Paradiso.” The change to a Sicilian background simply made it an easier project to write and film. “When I make a film that’s set in Sicily,” he explained, “there’s a certain element of facilitation. There are a lot of problems that I solve in an instant…. I know the habits, the customs of the people. Everything is easier for me.” But it remained the actress playing Malena who most inspired him. “I wrote the film for her [Bellucci] and about her,” he said, “almost like a custom-made dress for her. And I have to say that she gave back to the film and worked on it with a dedication equal to that I applied in writing the script for her.”
Still, the story is told from the point of view of Renato Amoroso, the youth who becomes obsessed with Malena, and in that respect it dovetails with an emphasis on childhood and memory that runs through the director’s work. “It’s evidently a recurring theme,” Tornatore admitted, “even though it’s not present in every one of my films. I never interrogate myself about why this theme comes up. I realize that there has to be a deep reason, but I wouldn’t know how to formulate it. Maybe I should go to a psychiatrist,…but I don’t have enough time!”
Tornatore did, however, offer one partial explanation for his regular recourse to the theme. “I grew up listening to stories that would be told to me every day, about the war, about the hard times of life in those years, and I recognize that my parents and grandparents were extraordinary narrators. They fascinated me. My father…got me so involved [in the events of his youth] that sometimes, when I make films that take place, for example, in the fifties–the years when I was born, but clearly I was too young to remember them–I felt like I had actually lived through that decade. This is one part of the explanation. I realize that there has to be a deeper explanation, but I don’t know what it is.”
Tornatore is far more certain about why he selected Giuseppe Sulfaro, a Sicilian boy with no prior acting experience, to play Renato. Locating just the right young man was, as Tornatore put it, “a very complex and long process, but the right process to take” because, he said, “I knew that picking the wrong kid would mean throwing the film into the garbage.” Some 3000 boys were considered, a number then reduced to approximately 100 in a first round of interviews. The hundred were then whittled down to 30, all of whom were auditioned more thoroughly. Nine youths were eventually chosen as finalists, and all were required to play a scene devised by Tornatore with an actress portraying Malena. As part of the scene, Tornatore told the nine that they could improvise by asking the actress anything they liked. “She has to answer any question you ask,” he instructed them. “They were all a little shy, but at one point Giuseppe Sulfaro, while we were shooting, started asking her questions–‘How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend?’ Then he asked: ‘What size bra do you wear?’ The actress said: ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you look? Look for yourself.’ And he unbuttoned her shirt and said, ‘You’re the third size.’ He didn’t blush at all. It was incredible…. You could see that he had a receptive and reactive capacity that was very strong.” It was that incident which clinched the role for Sulfaro, and Tornatore says that he never for a moment regretted the choice. This probably isn’t the first instance that a bra size has been a determining factor in a performer’s landing a role, but it’s not likely ever to have occurred in quite the same way before or since.
Miramax Films’ “Malena” will open in selected cities on Christmas Day, and will gradually expand throughout the country early in the New Year.