Oh, to be young and still innocent
Malèna is something of a coming of age story of a young Sicilian boy, Renato, during World War II, following a very strong obsession/identification with a young beauty named Malèna. Renato fantasizes that when he is old enough they will be together.
But the coming-of-age aspect is, in fact, just the window for the real story, which is Malèna's relationship with the town. This is the sort of place where most everyone knows who everyone is and the gossiping can get nasty. The men all lust after this beauty, and the women think she is up to all manner of things with their husbands. When Malèna's own husband is killed in the war, life becomes more and more difficult for her. The forces at play are so far apart and so petty that telling the story conventionally through Malèna's eyes would have felt like an after school special, or at least emotionally manipulating. Using Renato to tell the story is a masterstroke, enabling the edges of the town's cruelty to be muted by the one source of Sympathy in Malèna's life, though she doesn't know it.
The script misleads us for a time, pretending Renato is the center of things. If not for the skilled way we are lured away from him, I'd say this was a problem of focus - but the story is laid-back and presented so patiently, we could have explored much further territory and not feel like we've lost our way. Our short, but clever, visits directly into Renato's imagination disappear somewhere in the middle of the film, when events in Malèna's life are fully driving the action.
The film is in Italian and stars Italians. Malèna is played by model Monica Bellucci, who will become much more familiar to English speakers with the upcoming Matrix movies. Renato is Giuseppe Sulfaro, in his only role credited (so far). They both perform admirably in quite difficult roles.
Malèna is an excellent film that mixes sentiment with social commentary, historical drama with genuine spirit of an era, simply all aspects working on all cylinders at once.
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