Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Writers: Giuseppe Tornatore, Luciano Vincenzoni
Starring: Monica Bellucci, Giuseppe Sulfaro
Malèna captures one of the most profound moments in all of our lives: the precise instant when blissfully ignorant adolescence collides with the stark reality of society’s sexual taboos. This is the moment of innocence lost. In this case the loser is Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), a teenager on the cusp of manhood just as Italy enters World War II. The story begins on 10 June 1940, the day that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declares war on Britain and France. However, Il Duce’s strident declaration isn’t the most cataclysmic event in Renato’s day. His father (a hand-waving Luciano Federico) has bought Renato his first bicycle. This allows Renato to join a gang of older boys whose chief preoccupations are measuring the length of their penises (in thumbs, a somewhat variable unit of measure) and ogling the town’s curviest women.
Enter Monica Bellucci’s titular Malèna. She seems to be the only woman in town aware of her sexuality, of the grace of her movement, the shape of her body and its effect on others—and not just Renato’s gang. While the other womenfolk abide by the prevailing sex-negative covenants by garbing themselves in amorphous cassocks or discarded potato sacks, Malèna dresses in a shapely beige outfit that makes her stick out like the proverbial spare prick at a wedding. Her underwear is equally outré. As if savouring an after dinner glass of vin santo, Tornatore’s camera dawdles over the clasp of Malèna’s suspenders bulging beneath her skirt. It is precisely this unhurried observation of sexual minutiae that gives Tornatore’s film its power.
The reason for Malèna’s difference is that she’s an outsider; she has married into the town and her husband Nino Scordia has been mobilised in response to Mussolini’s war cry. As a married woman, Malèna is beyond the townsfolk’s reproach—in spite of the deeply cut ‘V’ of her outfit, which reveals a crucifix nestled between her breasts as she sidles along the town’s seaside promenade where Renato and his gang lie in wait. And thus the collision occurs between Malèna’s comparatively thinly veiled sexuality and the object that stiffens of its own accord inside Renato’s pants. She, of course, totally fails to notice Renato. He, conversely, sees nothing but Malèna.
Renato skips school, climbs a convenient tree and peeks through Malèna’s window. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, he seeks the juicy fruits of “knowledge and experience.” And like Jeffrey, Renato’s hopes are soon fulfilled as the strap of Malèna’s negligee slips off her shoulder and a breast swings free. And that is pretty much the whole plot: Renato spies on Malèna as the fortunes of war rise and ebb around them. The story is mono-dimensional, as are most of the characters; even Bellucci’s Malèna is largely a blank onto whom others, male and female alike, project their sexual frustrations. Renato is the only character with any depth, but he is amongst the most passive protagonists in film history as he spies on Malèna’s most intimate moments.
And that is Tornatore’s great sleight of hand: he has made voyeurism a subject fit for the Oscars. Cinema is by nature a voyeuristic medium; Tornatore has merely turned the screw, creating a new and uncomfortable breed of protagonist: the peeping tom as hero.
Renato progresses from voyeurism to fantasy. In an inversion of his passive real-world relationship with Malèna, Renato actively inserts her into his imaginings. It starts innocently enough with Malèna asking Renato to run an errand. Then the fantasy darkens: coins slip from Malèna’s hand, as if she’s paying Renato to ogle her. As he retrieves the soiled silver she raises her thin wrap, exposing her gleaming thigh to his close and eager face. Renato’s fantasies soon become masturbatory. He leafs through a previously stolen pocketbook of nude paintings. And there she is, in the book: Malèna, reclining nude, unashamedly inviting him to feast his eyes. A shaft of light spills across the bed where Renato plays with himself. He looks up—and there’s Malèna, leaning languidly in the doorway, wearing a virginal white dress with a nice big bow that may as well be labelled ‘Pull here’. All of this Renato takes in his stride as the natural process of male adolescence. Safe inside a warm, moist cocoon of masturbation and fantasy, Renato fails to notice the community’s sexual covenants coiling to strike.
Nino is reported killed and the protection afforded to Malèna by marriage is instantly gone. The womenfolk who earlier stood silent now gossip about who might be warming Malèna’s bed. This is sexual shame at work; she dresses like a slut, ipso facto she is a slut. Her brazen dress had to be tolerated while she was respectably married, but shorn of that respectability she can now be slapped into place. It is only Renato who knows the truth: he has seen Malèna dancing slowly, clutching a portrait of Nino to her chest. Renato watches with silent concern as the lies seep like poison through the town.
Renato begins a single-handed counter-insurgency in defence of Malèna’s honour, spitting in the drinks and pissing in the handbags of those who wrongly accuse her of wantonness. But this plot strand withers and the action shifts to Renato’s home, where his parents—impelled by the same sexual covenants as the town gossips—try to stop his masturbation, given away by the creaking of rusty bedsprings. And here Tornatore lays down his ace. It’s played as a moment of comedy, perhaps the only way that such an awful moment can be conveyed without overwhelming the viewer with the enormity of the unfolding tragedy. Confronted with the dilemma of either quashing his natural adolescent urges or finding a way to vent his Malèna-fuelled desires in private, Renato chooses the latter and oils the springs of his bedstead.
This is the precise moment when sexual shame, the wrongness of sex—emanating from the covenants and reinforced by the church, the townsfolk and, most effectively, by Renato’s family—poisons Renato. This is the moment when he realises that a part of his natural self is unacceptable and must be hidden; that there is a ‘good’ Renato that can be expressed openly and a ‘bad’, sexual Renato that can only be expressed furtively—Frank Booth ordering Dorothy to turn off the light before gawking at her vagina in Blue Velvet. Renato must suppress an inherent part of himself because it is deemed unclean. Renato, like most teenagers, is powerless to confront his society’s sexual covenants; instead he will fall into line and then spend his lifetime finding ways in which he can express his sexuality without incurring society’s wrath. This is the fall from innocence. This is Paradise Lost.
Renato’s division of his behaviour into that which is socially acceptable and that which is transgressive—his sexual urges—is mirrored in his psychology. The pressure of the sexual covenants unconsciously splits off the ‘bad’ part of his psyche from the ‘good’ and buries it under a patina of shame, causing a fracture between these two incompatible opposites. Michael Picucci PhD, author of The Journey Toward Complete Recovery, terms this psychological fracture the ‘sexual-spiritual split’.
Definition: Sexual-spiritual split
Split: “a tear, crack or fissure.” (Compact OED) The sexual-spiritual split is a division of the human psyche into ‘good’ (non-sexual) and ‘bad’ (sexual) parts. The desire to be perceived as ‘good’ causes people to reject their sexuality, creating a lifelong psychological wound.
Crucially, Renato has been punished for his first experience of sex. Although the adult Renato will learn about socially approved sex—i.e. monogamous marriage—the damage has been done; the sexual-spiritual split will poison every moment of his life, infecting him with the belief that sex is inherently bad. This sense of psychological splitting or cleaving is noted by Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism: “The feeling of guilt now associated with natural sexuality cleaves the natural, orgastic [sic] course of sexual coalescence and produces a damming up of sexual energy, which later breaks out in various ways.” We have already seen some of these ways: the murder of Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry, Tralala’s gang-bang, Ireland’s Magdalene institutions and the self-destructive behaviour of Dorothy, Frank, Bud, and Erika Kohut in the preceding chapter.
All of this lies ahead of the young Renato as he tests the bedsprings and silences every last creak, mistakenly believing that he can now fantasize over Malèna at his leisure. It’s too late: the rot has set in, and not just for him. Malèna finds herself increasingly marginalised by the lies swirling around her. Echoing Lynda’s rejection in Wish You Were Here, she is shunned by her father, loses her job and is refused food in the market. Finally the lust-crazed town dentist creates a public disturbance over her. Like Margaret, raped at the start of The Magdalene Sisters, it is the woman who takes the rap. Forced to prostitute herself to meet her legal fees, Malèna thus becomes the whore the townsfolk whispered her to be—and, deep down, wanted her to be, so as to justify their own latent sexual rage.
A shift in the fortunes of war leads to the next change in Malèna’s situation. The expulsion of Axis troops from North Africa leads to a German garrison in Sicily to stiffen the defences against Allied invasion. The influx of well-provisioned Nazi troops leads Malèna to capitalise on her physical assets. Now a genuine outsider, she becomes ravishingly beautiful as she embraces prostitution. Malèna struts among the down-at-heel townsfolk and the crisply uniformed Germans, openly advertising her wares and finding plenty of takers. Malèna teams up with Gina, a former baron’s mistress now in similar straits. Renato watches as Gina and Malèna are whisked away in a Nazi staff car. For once prevented from witnessing the actual event, Renato’s mind—and with it Tornatore’s camera—explodes into a kaleidoscopic orgy in which Gina and Malèna bring the entire German officer corps in Sicily to ramrod-stiff attention.
It’s all too much for poor Renato, who collapses under the strain. His mother has an exorcism performed but his father finally realises his son’s true need. As Allied bombs fall around them (the computer-generated planes are rather overdone, making it look like Renato’s fishing village is the target of a thousand bomber raid), Renato is taken to a brothel. Renato gives his father a profoundly thankful look; the father smiles wistfully and leaves as the bombs rumble and the lights flicker ominously. Renato chooses a girl who—surprise, surprise—looks just like Malèna. A tender scene follows as they undress. “Have you done it before?” she asks. “Yes,” Renato replies. “I’ve imagined it many times.”
Tornatore segues from Renato’s deflowering—the liberation of his adult sexuality—to the liberation of Sicily. Renato rides on a jeep as the Yanks parade through town. But the Axis withdrawal once again leaves Malèna at the mercy of the local womenfolk, who were made painfully aware of their own sexual shortcomings by her brazen behaviour during the German occupation. Cue the humiliation through public nudity and punishment through sexual violence already seen in Boys Don’t Cry, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Magdalene Sisters.
The vengeful women drag Malèna into the street, deliberately exposing her sexual parts to degrade her and reassert the supremacy of the community’s sex-negative covenants
The vengeful women drag Malèna into the street, deliberately exposing her sexual parts to degrade her and reassert the supremacy of the community’s sex-negative covenants. Like the bathroom stripping sequence in Boys Don’t Cry, this must have been a harrowing experience for both Monica Bellucci and the actresses playing the womenfolk. With the whole town watching and no one lifting a finger Malèna is stripped, beaten and—like Bernadette in The Magdalene Sisters—reduced to a bloodied hag, the very antithesis of the alluring siren she once was.
After her public humiliation Malèna leaves town, a broken and anonymous figure in a chaotic swirl of refugees and returning troops. Among them is her husband Nino (Gaetano Aronica), who lost an arm but saved his life. Like many a returning soldier, he finds himself not a hero but an outcast, an uncomfortable reminder to those who shirked their duty or profited from the war. No one will tell him what happened to Malèna; a crust of shame seals their lips. For the first time in the film Renato does something useful and writes to Nino, informing him of Malèna’s departure.
Nino eventually returns with Malèna. She now dresses in a demure russet outfit that melds in with the drab crowd. Her hair is shorn in a shapeless bob. She walks with eyes downcast, clinging to Nino for dear life. All her sexuality, all the vibrancy has been beaten out of her. Seeing the change in Malèna—she no longer poses a sexual threat—the women who earlier abused her now turn Samaritan. Malèna is given a bag of oranges but it spills onto the pavement. Renato picks them up. As he does so his hand brushes hers. It’s a profound moment for him but an empty one for her. Renato looks up at Malèna but, lost inside her own pain, she walks off—out of Renato’s life and out of the film.
Malèna shows the impact of our sexual covenants on adolescence with startling clarity, forcing a young man to elide his natural sexual experiences into an illicit shadow-land hidden from general view. Instead of sex becoming a joyful, consensual, openly but respectfully expressed integral part of his adult life it becomes a furtive aspect whose chief characteristics are shame, guilt, fear and a sense of transgression. Renato makes the rite of passage into sexually active adulthood when his father takes him to a brothel, but most teenagers are simply abandoned to cross this bridge on their own. When sex is believed to be fundamentally illicit, losing one’s virginity becomes, by definition, a transgressive—and hence traumatic—act. Controversial French filmmaker Catherine Breillat paints a bleak picture of this difficult and lonely journey in her 2001 film À Ma Soeur! (For My Sister!).
 “The belief that sexual pleasure is wicked springs primarily from parental taboos on infantile masturbation…” (G. Rattray Taylor, Sex in History).
 James DeMeo writes: “These modes of behavior tend to be transmitted from one generation to the next by virtue of duplication of specific traumatic, anti-pleasure and anti-sexual modes of childrearing.”