The Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore picked up the best foreign film Oscar in 1989 with Cinema Paradiso, his widely-beloved ode to a movie theater in his native Sicily. This year, Tornatore is positioned to make another run at the Oscar. His new one, Malena, has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film, announced last week. It’s another period piece set in small-town Sicily, a time and place beautifully re-created. And, again like Paradiso, we see the story through the eyes of a boy.
He is Renato, a 13-year-old. It’s 1941, but Renato is less concerned with Mussolini and World War II than with the spectacular presence of a married woman, Malena (Monica Bellucci), whose husband has gone off to the war. When Malena strides through the town’s plaza, traffic literally comes to a halt, and men and women alike strain their necks to watch her walk. She seems to glide over the streets on a cloud of Mediterranean sunlight and lust.
Renato begins following Malena around and spying on her. When she listens to a particularly romantic record, he goes out and buys the same song. As the war drags on, Renato remains loyal in his fantasy union with Malena, but her fortunes change dramatically in the town. Eventually, the movie becomes harrowing, as Malena is punished by her neighbors for her methods of surviving the war.
Tornatore works in broad strokes, so everything in the film is big, sweeping, sentimental. This includes the score by the great Ennio Morricone, whose music enriches the romantic mood. Also undeniably enriching the romantic mood is Italian supermodel Monica Bellucci, who may not be the most expressive actress in the world but certainly is convincing as the focus of an adolescent boy’s erotic imagination.
Renato is played by a non-actor, Giuseppe Sulfaro. He doesn’t perceptibly age during the years that pass in the story, but we can accept this. The town seems locked in time; why shouldn’t he?
This kind of lush approach should find some kind of audience, but Tornatore is wide rather than deep. On the other hand, the Oscar voters sometimes go for that—but I’ll put my money on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
2020: Horton would collect on that bet — if indeed he placed one.