Even the great can stumble. Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) adapted his new film Malèna from a story by Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), yet the whole thing comes off like a loud and humorless ripoff of Federico Fellini's Amarcord.
The story is seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy named Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro ), who is growing up in a small Sicilian village during the World War II. For a good three-fourths of the film, the local beauty Malèna (Monica Bellucci), the object of desire for the entire village, monotonously parades through streets and piazzas with cow-like indifference, followed by Renato and his gang of friends.
Malèna's beauty begets lust in all the men in the village and hatred in all women. When Germans enter the town, she becomes what everyone always wanted her to be -- a whore. She dyes her hair red, then blonde, and continues to parade about, only now with clients. Once the war is over, the crazed villagers demand Malèna to leave. They even throw stones at her -- and my, what a gratuitous, tiring, and boring scene that is. A truly reflective soul might be able to see, beyond all this hullabaloo, what Tornatore wanted to say about society's need for a scapegoat. If that truly is the morality of the film, well, it's as disturbing and disappointing as the movie itself.
Everything Fellini had once done with phantasmagoric flair -- the ridicule of the school system and the priggishness of the Church, the adolescent obsession with masturbation -- Tornatore turns into a vulgar spectacle of screams and slaps. Renato's insatiable longings, for example, are expressed as laughable clichés: When he peeps at Malèna at night, she is dancing around the house in a black, lacy nightgown with a portrait of her husband (away to fight in WWII) pressed patriotically to her chest. Consistently throughout the film, the camera dives in and out in a way that makes every scene seem crowded, rushed, and out of control.
The only explanation I can fathom for Malèna's distribution in the U.S. is that Tornatore is still living off the fame he received after making Cinema Paradiso. If you really want to see a coming-of-age story that takes place in a small Italian town during Il Duce's regime, treat yourself and rent Amarcord. It is a masterpiece. Malèna is an absurdity.