Must-See Movie Review: 'Malena' (2000)

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” is an old sang commonly said in jest as to suggest that the notion is so ridiculously implausible, it is understood to be a satire on the faux-plight of the good looking. Certainly, people wouldn’t hate someone just because they are beautiful, right? It is a well regarded “fact” that because of their physical appearance they have the world at their proverbial fingertips.

Their appearance is constantly touted and used as a measurement by which all others in society are held to and made to feel less than. Gawking at them comes with the territory, right? Why should they be upset? A lot of people would like to have that problem, right? Wrong.

Few understand what it feels like to be in the fishbowl of people’s constant leers, myself included and we imagine just as others do that if we were better looking or had more of whatever we perceive we’re lacking, life would be better. Malena presents the all too sad reality of such a life and the downsides that most of us never think of; drawing us inside the fishbowl.

2000’s Malena tells the coming of age story of Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) who is growing up in the 1940’s during World War II. When the film opens he is 12 years old and amidst the chaos of war, he experiences his “awakening” following his first eyeful of Malena (Monica Bellucci) the talk of his small Sicilian town in Italy.

A fixation soon takes root and Malena is the subject of his daydreams and personal desires. Renato swears that he is in love with Malena and feels something far more powerful than that of his buddies’ simple infatuation.

Because of his constant skulking around her home, he comes to see and understand the inside story. That the woman, who is nothing more than a sexual object to the men in his town and is at the sole brunt of verbal assault and jealousy from all of the women, is actually a devoted wife.

As much as Renato casts himself as a force in her life, he is in actuality nothing more than a bystander, a voyeur. He doesn’t dare to speak in her defense as if whatever he says would make no difference. It is the very act of staying in the shadows to observe her that makes his taking a stand, a distant notion.

His lack of outspokenness creates an annoyance with his character; leaving you to constantly remind yourself that he is just a kid. Renato’s experience is still highly relatable despite being from a different time period, a veritable world away.

His story is a universal experience. That first sensation when you see someone that awakens your adult senses. Rather from your personal exposure or a public figure whose attractiveness overtakes you; it is an indelible moment that remains etched in your memory forever.

We imagine a lot of what we could do if that person gave us a chance and then comes the question of who the person behind the gorgeous face really is. This story transcends language (the film is in Italian) and culture, it is a unifying experience. 

This film in a lot of ways is just as much about celebrity and our treatment of the people we keep in glass houses as it is a coming of age story. How many take a “you asked for it” approach to any frustration that is expressed by another due to the microscope their lives have come under. Similarly, the townspeople feel that Malena has brought the bullying she receives on herself.

This film challenges the viewer about the social mores that trap people in the way they live and the way others believe they deserve to. Malena is beautiful. Should she have to cover that up so that she can live without the scorn of people, letting them dictate the way she lives her life? What happens if she keeps her head up? Why do we have to place blame on someone for just being who they are?

Lajos Koltai’s cinematography is stunning as he captures Sicily and all of its heavenly beauty. What director and screenwriter, Guiseppe Tornatore, utilizes so effectively is the comedy he injects throughout the film that entrances the viewer into a deep investment to the story and its characters. You’ve been spending so long chuckling at all of Renato’s antics that by the end of the movie it socks you right in the heart and overwhelms you with emotion.

This is a truly touching film that will hit you like a tidal wave by the end. I haven’t personally been overwhelmed by emotion in a film to this degree in quite some time. It was breathtakingly moving, and not because it had a flashily tragic moment. Rather because it was filled with honestly human ones. The bare moment that reveals and defines a person’s character, their integrity, their honor. The closing lines of this movie are perhaps the most effective to ever end a film.

The performances of Guiseppe Sulfaro (Renato) and Monica Bellucci (Malena) are achingly poignant. Young Sulfaro demonstrates a range beyond his years. It is a sweet and charming performance, one that will stay with you for an infinite period of time.

Bellucci is every bit as beautiful, as the movie focuses on her being. However, the inner beauty she projects in the role is equally as captivating.

Her role doesn’t have a lot of lines and she doesn’t need them. Everything she needs to say, she expresses in her eyes. She evokes such empathy as the titular character that the treatment she receives will leave you bristling and beyond angered. It is a stunning performance, a revelation. Gaetano Aronica as Nino, Malena’s husband is heartbreaking and is the linchpin of the film. His performance seals an already, amazingly performed film.

This movie is a haunting portrait of growing up, finding yourself, finding the truth behind someone else and more than that, what you do with that knowledge when you acquire it. It is a must-see movie. Rating: 9.7/10