Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore hit the bull’s-eye with both the critics and the public with 1989’s “Cinema Paradiso,” a sweet-as-sugar coming-of-age tale coupled with a loving celebration of the power of movies. It copped the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1990 and charmed audiences worldwide. Unfortunately, Tornatore seems to be a one-shot wonder. His later films, at least as far as one can tell from those accorded U.S. distribution (1994’s “A Pure Formality,” 1995’s “The Starmaker” and last year’s “The Legend of 1900”) have all been serious disappointments. “Malena,” his newest effort, is, like all his pictures, beautiful to look at, but it’s also at once overly familiar and emotionally confused. It’s likely to appeal only to those more interested in a Sicilian travelogue than a dramatically effective film.
“Malena” is the name of a beautiful young widow (Monica Bullucci) struggling to survive in a small Sicilian town during World War II. Though her husband has reportedly been killed in action, she’s not treated by her neighbors with much sympathy. All the men gawk over her as she strides purposefully through the streets, decked out in revealing skirts and dresses, and all the women look upon her with envy and distaste. Malena becomes the prime object of attention for the horny young local lads, particularly the aptly-named Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who becomes madly infatuated with the woman. She becomes a sort of goddess over whom he fantasizes extravagantly (in inserts which mimic scenes from genre movies), to the extent of disturbing his ever-vigilant parents (Luciano Federico and Matilde Piana) with the noisy squeaking of his bedsprings; and he actually becomes a good-natured stalker, observing her assiduously from afar. Unfortunately, economic exigencies force Malena into prostitution, often with resident German soldiers, and after the liberation her fraternization with the enemy is the excuse for her mistreatment at the hands of those who had previously lionized Mussolini (female jealousy is, of course, the true cause). A closing twist allows the maturing Renato to intercede on her behalf, and the denouement has a vaguely mawkish hopeful tone.
The picture is, obviously, another coming-of-age tale, and, like “Cinema Paradiso,” it includes an affectionate attitude toward movies, but that’s where comparisons with Tornatore’s earlier success end. While the 1989 film boasted genuinely attractive characters whom the audience could easily embrace, the figures in “Malena” never seem more than a writer’s conveniences. Partially this is due to the stiff, wooden lead performances of Bullucci and Sulfaro. The former, a gorgeous cover-girl, spends most of her time standing in languorous poses or walking through cobblestone squares in splendid outfits as though she were striding down a runway at a fashion show. She does get to exhibit greater variety in the closing reel, when she’s abused by the crowd and later reappears as a subdued, humble housewife, but even then the character never really connects with us emotionally; she remains remote and detached, a distant figure whom we observe at too great a remove. The non-professional Sulfaro isn’t nearly as engaging as the child was in “Cinema Paradiso.” Indeed, he’s not adept enough to keep Renato’s obsession with Malena from seeming just a bit creepy; and in the later stages of the story, when he’s supposed to be older than his true years, he seems literally like a boy playing dress-up in his father’s suit. The supporting cast is, to put it charitably, a strenuous lot; most of them overdo the local color to an alarming degree.
That’s not entirely their fault, though. Tornatore, in both his writing and his directing, veers from near-farce to near-tragedy so abruptly (and unconvincingly) that even the finest actors couldn’t have hidden the seams. The smooth transitions that marked “Cinema Paradiso” are lacking here, and the picture doesn’t come off as the stylish reverie it aims to be. It’s more effortful than artful.
“Malena” uses its Sicilian locations well (it was filmed mostly in Siracusa), and anyone looking for lush, sun-drenched shots of the photogenic locales will be pleased at what he finds here. Unfortunately, the action and acting appearing against the backgrounds fail to match their splendor.