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Starring Monica Bellucci's body, and, uh, some other folks
'Malena': Bombshell in a bomb
(CNN) -- Director Giuseppe Tornatore has apparently come to believe the legend that he can play treacle like a violin. His most popular feature, "Cinema Paradiso" (1988), is stickier than a two-ton cinnamon bun.
But Tornatore outdoes himself with "Malena," a simplistic, manipulative piece of filmmaking that unspools like a parody of overripe Italian romanticism. It's a visually lush examination of a young boy's burgeoning sexuality that consists mostly of the same three scenes repeated in a virtual loop. It quickly becomes apparent that there's no real point to what you're watching.
There is, however, a lot of impressive scenery in the form of world-class bombshell Monica Bellucci. It's a shame Tornatore never allows her a chance to deliver a performance; she barely delivers any dialogue.
Frank Tashlin's 1956 rock 'n' roll comedy, "The Girl Can't Help It," features a celebrated sequence in which Jayne Mansfield's overblown chassis wreaks havoc on the men who happen to catch a glimpse of her. Well, rest assured that Mansfield's got nothing on Bellucci, who "plays" Malena, a ridiculously sexy widow living in a Sicilian village during World War II. You'd think the whole of Malena's existence consists of lovingly strapping on garters and rolling down the street like a blob of super-erotic Jell-O.
The men of the village are understandably focused on Malena's bodacious musculature, although you have to wonder what else they do with their time. Bellucci struts her stuff in exceptionally memorable style, true enough, but the population's concentration on her promenades befits that accorded to Godzilla stomping his way through Tokyo.
Young and in lust
The most obsessed of the gawkers is Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) a 13-year-old boy who is bodily and spiritually overcome by his lust for Malena. The first time he lays eyes on her, Tornatore actually pans down to Sulfaro's awakening crotch to make sure you get the message. Ennio Morricone's circus-like, oom-pah music is just as obvious; it forever sounds like he's announcing the unexpected appearance of a dog act.
You know at the outset that this will be a wallow in false dreaminess, because Renato narrates the story as an adult. He tells us that what we're watching is a remembrance of his Malena fixation, not how it actually occurred. This is an old trick that directors use when they want to dispense with common sense, or even a reasonable thread of reality running through the center of the movie. It clears the way for Tornatore's male characters to whoop and jump around like sexually agitated chimpanzees for most of the picture's running time. The women of the village turn their noses up at poor Malena, gossiping about the details of her morning, noon, and nightlife.
Those three oft-repeated scenes mentioned earlier consist of Renato spying on Malena in a variety of alluring circumstances; Renato masturbating to relieve his hysteria; and his anti-Fascist father (Luciano Federico) smacking him in the head for his indiscretions.
Lovely, sure, but...
From a sheer voyeuristic perspective, you can't beat the spying. Bellucci repeatedly pours into and out of her clothes, and she smokes cigarettes as if they're the next best thing to orgiastic ecstasy.
It's debatable, though, whether this is worth the price of a ticket. If that's all you're looking for, you can rent a Playboy video for a couple of bucks. Renato, unfortunately, occupies a VCR-free planet. He has to climb up trestles to get a peek.
After a long while, Tornatore suddenly tries to convert the proceedings into a politically charged story of torment. Malena, who's been forced into prostitution in order to survive the war, even goes so far as to service Nazi officers. Squadrons of avenging American bombers drop their payloads on the townspeople, and the music swells.
A brutal act of vengeance by the local women is remarkably ugly and ill-fitting, given the silliness that precedes it. None of this fits together properly. Like Malena herself, the movie ends up nothing more than a great-looking mess.
"Malena" features adolescent talk of sex, nudity, masturbation, a father taking his son to a brothel, and one scene in which of group of boys measure their equipment, so to speak. Viewers who are offended by insight have nothing to fear. In Italian with English subtitles ... although Bellucci's body speaks fluent Esperanto. Rated R. 93 minutes.
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