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Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Now you see her, but know you don't

The feminine mystique in eyes willingly deceived


Rating: * * * * Director: Giuseppe Tornatore Running time: 92 minutes Language: Italian/EnglishOpens June 9

These days, we've become used to women in cinema meeting certain standards. They should be visually stunning, but they must also be brave, self-assertive, sometimes violent, smart and cool. They are the kind of women who command ultra-respect or get major girlfriend points because the laws of the box office deem it so. These are the women that women audiences want to see.

Monica Belluci in "Malena"

So it is that women in movies become more super-duper with each passing year, making a work like "Malena" commendable if only for the defiant courage of filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore ("Cinema Paradiso," "The Legend of 1900"). Here is a director unafraid to row against the current, to become the target of mountains of feminist hate mail, to attract reviews describing his latest work as "a film that has no outstanding features except for the breasts of the lead actress."

Actually, the last is an injustice. It should have said, "except for the breasts, hips, legs, ankles and a few hairdos of the lead actress."

"Malena" is a tale of male obsession back in the days when it was OK for men to have such obsessions, even if they happened to be 12-year-olds in shorts, riding bicycles -- or even if their actions bordered on stalking, invasion of privacy, and breaking and entering.

These days, this movie's boy protagonist, Renato (played by the incredible first-timer Giuseppe Sulfaro), would likely land in juvenile court, with 100 sessions of child therapy. But Tornatore sets "Malena" in a Sicilian village in the 1940s, where Renato is allowed plenty of freedom to indulge his adolescent fantasies for the local beauty Malena (Monica Belluci).

She walks down the street, and Renato's burning gaze is riveted on the little knobs of her garter belt, clearly visible through the material of her taut, white skirt. She stands in the doorway of her house, and he dreams about immersing his face in the folds of her pink chiffon robe.

Tornatore's take is that some women don't have to do anything other than simply be there, and men will climb the walls in hormone-driven frenzy. Renato is crazed to the point that he peeps in Malena's window every night and goes to sleep with her underwear (stolen off her clothesline) over his face. Though his every action and waking moment is defined by Malena, she is unaware of his existence.

Malena is 27 and married to a man who was drafted into the war two weeks after their wedding. Apart from her aging schoolteacher father (Pietro Notarianni), she has no ties and no friends. Male heads turn with fascination every time she walks into town, but the women spread nasty gossip and ostracize her.

Renato follows her like a shadow and is privy to the sad downward turn her life takes after news arrives of her husband's death in action. As an object of male lust and female misunderstanding and envy, the widowed Malena eventually loses even the support of her father and turns to prostitution. She grants her favors first to the local bigwigs, then to the Italian military and finally to the Nazis.

For Renato, Malena's despair is painful to see. He tells himself that only he understands her innermost feelings and that, whatever she does, she still loves her late husband the most. Nevertheless, he never stops desiring Malena himself, indeed so intensely that it makes him ill, and his worried mama (Matilde Piana) calls in a priest to pray over him.

In Renato's feverish eyes, Malena symbolizes both attainable sex and unattainable purity: a contradictory combination that he (and the movie) is content never to question.

Meanwhile, Malena herself says or does very little, save being a decorative woman with a right to be one. In fact, she spends most of her time looking slightly miffed, her lovely mouth in a perpetual pout and her eyes cast down, just so. And always silent. Such a performance could not be hoped for from the likes of Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz, and Malena's utter passivity is perhaps Tornatore's way of saying so, straight in the face of Hollywood womandom.

As always, though, Tornatore displays an infallible instinct in choosing his cast. Belluci seems to have been born to play the role of Malena. The combination of her performance and Tornatore's eye as he traces every aspect of her physicality reminds us that it was the Italians who, after the Dark Ages, recognized the beauty and sensuality of the human body without in any way demeaning it.

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