Like his Academy Award-winning Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo cinema Paradiso), Giuseppe Tornatore’s new film, Malèna, dwells in a nostalgia for the past, and for the coming-of-age of a single young male protagonist. Additionally, both films are set against the backdrop of the end of World War II, and focus on the young hero’s maturation and subsequent loss of innocence. Though the war occupies a more prominent thematic position in Malèna, Tornatore’s suggestion in both films is clear there is no innocence possible, individually or culturally, after Mussolini, fascism, and the Holocaust. Indeed. As Theodor Adorno declared years ago, “Poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
Cinema Paradiso‘s major failure is that, while it raises the specter of post-war social and cultural transformations in Italy, it is content to wallow self-indulgently in its protagonist’s sexual failures and naive desire to escape his past. Malèna allows no such flight. Here the past is not dead or inert, it always influences the future; unlike Cinema Paradiso, this film recognizes the futility of its own nostalgia. Furthermore, the rather treacly love story between Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro) and the war widow Malèna (Monica Bellucci) isn’t “merely” commentary on a boy’s sexual awakening and his first impossible/unrequited passion. Renato and Malèna represent traditional Italian social and gender relations, as well as the political and cultural effects of Il Duce‘s dictatorship. The success of Malèna lies in how both Renato and Malèna’s bodies and stories become national bodies and national stories, and in its negotiation of a delusional nostalgia for an Edenic, pre-Mussolini Italy in a post-Auschwitz world.
The film takes place in the small Sicilian village of Castelcuto around 1941, and we follow 12-year-old Renato’s obsession with Malèna. She is left alone, with only her aged father for family, when her new husband Nino (Gaetano Aronico) goes off to war. As Renato’s fascination with Malèna grows, we watch him engage in a series of rather predictable youthful shenanigans (which are nonetheless entertaining), including stealing a pair of her panties from the laundry line, masturbating incessantly, and causing his conservative Catholic family much consternation. Recalling Tornatore’s previous work, Renato’s masturbatorial fantasies cast him and Malèna in the roles of classic Hollywood romances Tarzan and Malèna, Cowboy Renato saves Malèna from savage Indians, and Gladiator Renato proves his worth to the Empress Malèna. In these images come the first suggestion that nostalgia is untenable: while these cinematic romances point out the unattainability of any relationship between Renato and Malèna, they also belie the realities of the decidedly non-idyllic relationships Renato observes around him. In the end, Renato cannot save Malèna from any of the tragedies that befall her.
Isolated and beautiful, Malèna soon becomes the object of every male’s sexual fantasy and the scorn of every local woman, all of whom seemingly exist only to spread rumors about Malèna’s sexual habits. Each time she walks through the piazza, Malèna is met with lecherous stares and catcalls from the men, and stony glares and hand-covered whispers by the women. After she receives word of her husband’s death and her father is killed during an Allied bombing of Sicily, Malèna finds that she, literally, has nowhere to turn. With no one to protect her virtue, Malèna is a target for sexual predations. After the smitten dentist Cusimano (Pippo Providenti) is caught lurking around her house, much to his wife’s outrage, Malèna must prove in court that she is not guilty of “indecent behavior,” or face two years in prison. This ham-handed commentary on the place of women in traditional Catholic Sicilian society (it’s a virgin/whore thing, you know) is one of the film’s major shortcomings. The second is that while Renato comes out of the war and his obsession without a scratch, Malèna is repeatedly exploited and abused; as usual, the miseries of the world are seemingly best “understood” (by whom, I wonder) through the debasement of women.
Also victimized by a local merchant who offers her rationed sugar, coffee, and other foodstuffs in exchange for sexual favors, Malèna soon sees that prostitution is the only avenue to ensure her own survival, and she actually becomes the “whore” about whom all the tongues have been wagging. What the film never really attends to, despite the lengths taken to show how “chaste” Malèna is contrary to village gossip, is how she so easily comes to this decision. But this is also where Malèna is transformed into political allegory, which is perhaps the only reason for her expeditious transformation. Malèna prostitutes herself not to the local men who so desire her, but to the German officers who occupy the town, just as, the film is suggesting, Il Duce prostituted Italy to Hitler’s Germany. Now that Malèna’s body and story have become the stuff of national symbolics, her fate at the hands of Castelcuto’s women after the war is anything but surprising. Once Mussolini is overthrown and the U.S. army liberates Sicily in a particularly gruesome scene these women drag Malèna into the piazza, where they beat her, shave her head, and banish her.
In the aftermath of the war, the integrity of the nation must be reasserted, and this is effected on the local, Castelcuto level by abjecting the compromised body of Malèna. That is, her body and her life are a past that must be forgotten/gotten rid of. The film continues to demonstrate how the villagers attempt to rewrite history as well as their own roles in that history and how local knowledges are thus transformed into official knowledges. We overhear a local businessman talking about Malèna’s whereabouts, and he muses that she is probably a “Commie” and has gone to the Soviet Union. According to this logic, Italy’s cozying up to Nazism can only be forgotten by focusing on a new enemy, and behaving as if the “Commies” are and always have been the antithesis of everything Italy stands for. This man, of course, was also the leader of the local fascist cadre during the war, a role he quickly repudiates when asked if his new party line doesn’t contradict his previous political role in the village.
For all the townsfolk’s various attempts to erase or forget their own roles in the war, in the end Malèna returns to Castelcuto and becomes a constant physical reminder of the past, its continuity, and presence in today. Malèna’s presence repeatedly challenges the nostalgia for an “innocent” past that infuses the population of post-war Castelcuto. The past is never simply past; this is the “lesson” that Renato learns. And while Malèna at first seems to be about one boy’s sexual awakening, on a much broader level, it is about his and Italy’s and “our” coming into historical consciousness, our awakening to the vicissitudes and legacies of the past and how they influence bodies and histories, both individual and national.