In the sleepy Sicilian town of Castelcuto, a woman waits for her husband to return from war, a boy grows up, and gossip rages.
This is the world of Malena, a fable about life from writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paridiso), based on a short story by Luciano Vincenzoni. The film, spoken in Italian, includes exceptionally thoughtful subtitles that alleviate most of the frustrations with simplistic translations.
The story begins in 1940, on the day that Italy declares war on France and Germany and young Renato Amaroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), 12, gets a bicycle. Renato's schoolmates are impressed but abruptly break off their admiration to watch as a beautiful young woman walks by. It is Malena Scordia (Monica Bellucci), who was brought to live in Castelcuto by her new husband, who was soon after called away to war.
The beautiful and voluptuous Malena inflames the imagination of the men and boys of the town and the envy and spite of the women. There is nothing in her manner to invite such comment, but wherever she goes, the leering eyes and obscene comments follow.
Except for Renato, who worships her.
On his bicycle, the lad follows her everywhere. Mostly it's at a distance, but once in a while he gets up enough courage to pass close by. Renato is not immune to lustful thoughts, but he also dreams of protecting her. She is his first love.
To the village, however, Malena is a convenient diversion from the war. When food gets scarce and its quality is even worse, there is always Malena to gossip about, to ponder how she makes a living when no wife will allow her husband to hire her. And when the news comes that Malena's husband has been killed in Africa, the beautiful young woman becomes even more of a target.
Only Renato knows the truth, how she lives alone, sewing; how she dances with her husband's picture; how she fights against the only course left open to her. But Renato is growing up and is coming to understand the strict social mores of his provincial life. He can no more fight for her reputation than she can tell off the men who ogle her.
Malena walks a fine line between dreamy and laughable, and one incident is so unexpectedly violent that it hurts to watch it, but it is also a poignant coming-of-age tale. Bellucci builds such an emotional wall around her character that, although Malena is quietly seductive, she remains a sympathetic mystery.
With his wide eyes that reflect the sadness of the world, young Sulfaro carries the film on his slender shoulders, providing gentle laughter as he fights to be allowed to assume the symbols of manhood. Although Renato is often little more than a peeping tom, he keeps track of Malena with a gentle despair over the realization of how little power he has, and he ends up being the catalyst for her acceptance.
There is little in Malena that is remotely realistic except for the damning power of gossip. But its sunwashed landscapes, arresting cast, and sweet, unmocking acceptance of a young adolescent's infatuation are more than enough reason to enter this world.