Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.– Lord Byron, She Walks in Beauty
Filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore explores the theme of beauty and heartbreak in Malena. Set in Sicily during World War II, the film is a coming-of-age story about unrequited love and the curse of being beautiful.
Played by Italian goddess Monica Bellucci, Maddalena Scordia a.k.a. Malena is the main attraction of Castelcuto.* She is the wife of a soldier who is presumed dead. Men lust after her. Women envy her. The world becomes a lonely place for Malena. Because of loneliness, Malena’s beauty becomes her tragedy. Little does she know she has a stalker/secret admirer, an adolescent boy named Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro). Through the eyes of Renato, we see and experience the tragic world of Malena. With Renato as a careful observer, Tornatore humanizes the objectified Malena.
Malena serves as a catalyst to Renato’s transition from puberty to adolescence. He fantasizes about her, imagining movie scenes with him as the main actor, and Malena as his leading lady. Most people confuse strong sexual desires with love. So, was it love? Yes. He loved every inch of her… from a distance.
Unlike most men in the movie (with the exception of the soldier husband), Renato fell in love with Malena the human being, not Malena the sexpot. Renato was the only one who got intimate with the real Malena, the emotionally reclusive Malena who suffered the brutal judgment of the village people. I’m not talking about physical intimacy — more like soul intimacy. Renato chose to see Malena as a human being worthy of love and respect.
Patriarchy as the Predator, Women as the Prey
Renato: “What’s her name?”
Boy #1: “Malena. The most beautiful a** in Castelcuto.”
(Right. She’s just an a** for you, not a human being.)
One major factor for Malena’s objectification is the film’s setting. Italy during the second World War was an empire of fascism, patriarchy, and slavery. Soldiers a.k.a. war slaves (mostly men) are sent to their deaths. If they — especially those in higher ranks — come out alive, they are rewarded with women (prostitutes, a.k.a. sex slaves). Back then, the career options for women were very limited. It’s either she becomes a wife/mother or a prostitute. Either way, she functions not for herself but for men.
As much as she wants to have a respectable job, no one wants to employ Malena because of her alleged sluttiness. She needs to eat. That’s why she needs money. The only “employment” available to her is prostitution. Sadly, Malena’s predicament is still rampant these days. Most women are still marginalized, especially in underdeveloped countries.
Of course, men are treated as objects too — programmed since boyhood that their masculinity depends on the size of their d*ck. The scene of the boys measuring their privates is a great example.
The Sicilian Village is Our Society
Told in parallel with Renato’s adolescence, Malena’s loneliness becomes the price she pays simply for being beautiful. Malena often walks around town with her head down — intimidated by the lustful and envious eyes around her. The Sicilian village represents our society — a society drenched in lust and envy.
Because of porn and other pornified medium, women have been utterly degraded as sex objects not worthy of love and respect. In real life, men have been brainwashed by the pornified society to drool over “her face, her boobs, her a**, and her p*ssy” — nevermind her thoughts and feelings because she doesn’t have any. She’s just a sex object, right? And the men in Malena are no different than most men in real life.
On the other hand, most women have become so accustomed to society’s ideal beauty that they don’t know how to appreciate their own beauty anymore — hating and wanting what they don’t have, becoming slaves to man-made standards.
Malena meets society’s standard of beauty. That’s why most women, except for the prostitute, despise her. Instead of loving their own beauty, these women hate what they can’t be, which is Malena. In real life, this can be translated into plastic surgery, liposuction, boob job, skin whitening, tanning procedures, butt enhancement, labiaplasty, etc.
We have traded love for lust, and gratitude for envy. What a sad society.
Malena is Monica Bellucci’s show. This film is a tribute to her timeless allure and beauty. (She’s almost 53 years old now, but she still has it.) And she lit up the screen, alright. The woman’s beauty is beyond words. She doesn’t need to look or act slutty just to be sexy. Miss Bellucci’s face is very erotic in itself. Her visage is already a work of art. That’s why the camera loves her. Simply divine.
Her performance is also remarkable. Although she rarely spoke in the film, Miss Bellucci conveys her emotions through facial expressions and body language. Malena’s transformation from being a shy, insecure village woman to a carefree prostitute is one of the key moments of Miss Bellucci’s performance.
Before her transformation, Malena was untouchable, with a gaze that can only meet the road that she’s walking on. But when heartbreak sends her to the pits of loneliness, she became vulnerable. She transforms into an even more attractive version of herself, finally not giving a damn about what other people say, as long as she can fill the void in her.
Miss Bellucci’s climactic scene is during Malena’s public beating at the hands of envious women, with lustful and cowardly men just watching. It is a scene quite reminiscent of Mary Magdalene’s stoning, a classic tale from the Bible. Miss Bellucci later played Mary Magdalene in The Passion of the Christ. Perhaps Mel Gibson was inspired by this scene? That’s why he chose Miss Bellucci for the role.
Also known for Cinema Paradiso, Tornatore uses the same formula in Malena: starting out as a lighthearted story, ending as a sad tale of heartbreak and innocence lost. Just like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, Renato (literally) looks back as he moves away from his lost innocence (Malena).
Sulfaro gave a noteworthy performance as the young Renato. Although he is playing a 12 year-old boy, the actor was around 15 when they shot the film. He has a lot of key scenes with Miss Bellucci, and it’s quite impressive how a young talent like Sulfaro was able to evoke sensitivity in his performance. During the “measuring the d*ck” scene, we were able to realize that Renato looked at Malena in a different, meaningful way. Through Sulfaro’s thoughtful portrayal, audiences get to see and feel the adolescent joy and heartbreak.
That Sicilian Feeling
Known for his work in When a Man Loves a Woman, cinematographer Lajos Koltai was nominated for an Oscar for his work in Malena. Along with The Godfather II and Cinema Paradiso, Malena is one of the films that were able to capture the authentic feel of Sicily. An independent kingdom long before being “Italianized,” Sicily looks like a different country — such distinctiveness can be seen through Koltai’s cinematography. Koltai uses rust as the film’s dominant color, a great choice to evoke a Mediterranean ambiance.
There’s just something exotic about Sicily. It’s like: Malena is to the village women, as Sicily is to Italy. Both Malena and Sicily have an identity of their own.
Another thing that captured “the Sicilian feeling” is Ennio Morricone’s musical score. The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in the West, For a Few Dollars More, etc. All of the grand maestro’s scores are awesome. And his work for Malena is no different. My favorite piece is the one during Malena’s makeover. It kinda sounds like a lovechild of The Godfather and Chinatown.
One of the best directors from Italy, Tornatore finally achieves the pinnacle of his career with Malena. Yes, Cinema Paradiso and The Legend of 1900 were beautiful films too. However, I think Malena solidified Tornatore’s mark on the map of world cinema. Malena is a standout beauty of its own kind.
“I pedaled as fast as I could… as if I were escaping from longing, from innocence, from her. Time has passed, and I have loved many women. And as they’ve held me close… and asked if I will remember them I’ve said, ‘Yes, I will remember you.’ But the only one I’ve never forgotten is the one who never asked… Malena.”
Trailer for Malena:
DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended. I don’t own or claim to own any of the photos used.
*Castelcuto is an imaginary town. The film was partly shot in Noto.