on December 22, 2000 by Wade Major
   With "Malèna," Italian auteur Giuseppe Tornatore returns to familiar ground, once again chasing the widespread international success that has eluded him ever since 1989's Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso." Much like 1994's "Star Maker" and, to a lesser degree, last year's "The Legend of 1900," "Malèna" is a romantic fable in the "Paradiso" mold, a silky floe so tenderly conceived and expertly executed that it seems inconceivable it should fail. Yet fail it does, ambitiously overreaching in its attempt to combine two hopelessly disparate coming-of-age stories--of a young boy on the verge of manhood and a country in search of its soul.

   Based on a story by Luciano Vincenzoni, "Malèna" takes place entirely in an idyllic Sicilian town still largely unspoiled by the political tumult of Mussolini's fascism, even as its citizens openly question just how long present conditions will last. Politics, however, is the furthest thing from the mind of young Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro) who, like most boys his age, is far more interested in the opposite sex, particularly the alluring and curvaceous Malena Scordia (Monica Bellucci). Others are less fond of the popular schoolteacher's daughter, viewing her as something of an exhibitionist, a libertine of suspect morals. These tensions are predictably elevated as World War II escalates, giving way to a political and social instability that takes its greatest toll on those least able to adapt. Naturally, Malèna becomes one of the first such victims, forced to fend for herself after the bombing death of her father and the rumored disappearance of her soldier husband. As the war drags on, conditions worsen, and Malèna is left no choice but to resort to increasingly desperate and debasing survival strategies. But while others view her with growing contempt, Renato is able to look deeper, past the purely sexual object he once coveted and into the face of an all too human being. p>   Endearing and affecting as it is to witness Renato's impetuous carnality displaced by a mature sense of empathy, it is precisely this tactic that keeps the film's emotional center frustratingly under wraps. Because the audience is given access to Malèna's life only through Renato's eyes, even at her most tragic she remains a largely symbolic figure, emotionally accessible only through a character who is himself struggling with emotional maturity. This appears to be at least partially intentional on Tornatore's part, a calculated effort to present Malèna as emblematic of Italy itself, her tribulations an indictment of the hypocrisy that have historically allowed Italians to cannibalize the best and the most beautiful in themselves. Struggling to have it both ways, however, throws the film off-balance, elongating the setup to the point of tedium so that there remains almost no time to properly resolve at the end.

   It should be pointed out that the U.S. release is some 16 minutes shorter than Tornatore's original Italian cut, which may partially explain some of the leaps and missed beats. On the whole, though, it's difficult to imagine the same problems not plaguing a longer cut. For even as audiences find themselves wrapped warmly in Tornatore's rich atmosphere and Ennio Morricone's lush musical score, the thematic indecision becomes even more obvious, an emotional leak that leaves just enough residue to tarnish.    Starring Monica Bellucci, Giuseppe Sulfaro, Luciano Federico, Matilde Piana, Pietro Notarianni and Gaetano Aronica. Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Written by Giuseppe Tornatore. Produced by Harvey Weinstein and Carlo Bernasconi. A Miramax release. Period drama. Italian-language; subtitled. Rated R for sexuality/nudity, language and some violence. Running time: 91 min.

Tags: Giuseppe Tornatore, Italian, foreign, Monica Bellucci, Giuseppe Sulfaro, Luciano Federico, Matilde Plana, Pietro Notarianni, Gaetano Aronica, period piece, coming-of-age, adaptation

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