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'MALENA'S' BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN-DEEP.

Byline: David Kronke Staff Writer

``Malena'' is about a pretty woman who gets ogled a lot and has a rough time of it in general thanks to her good looks in a tiny Sicilian village during World War II. How much you enjoy it sort of depends on either how much you like ogling a pretty woman or watching her suffer because of her attractiveness. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot else going on here.

Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, best-known for his sentimental memory pieces like the Oscar winner ``Cinema Paradiso'' and the more recent epic ``The Legend of 1900,'' ``Malena,'' too, offers romanticized reflections on pubescence. Young Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), on the day that Mussolini declares war on Europe, is hopelessly smitten with our title heroine (Monica Bellucci), a soldier's bride, a Latin professor's daughter and apparently the only looker on the whole island of Sicily.

When Malena strolls through town, men don't just sneak furtive glances - their jaws drop at her staggering beauty day after day. If she pulls out a cigarette, lighters appear, ostensibly whimsically, from all corners of the film frame. (For a country at war, there seems to be a heck of a lot more men than women in town.) The few women who are around exchange vicious gossip about Malena, equating good looks with loose morals. (They also incongruously grouse that she doesn't understand the town's rules - well, she's the only woman in town who doesn't wear drab colors - though she apparently grew up there and married a local.)

In fact, Malena must go to trial for allegedly having an affair with a married man (huh? In Italy?). Alas, as this turns into ``Summer of '42'' with a mean streak, her degradation at the hands of the townspeople is not nearly complete.

Nor is young Renato's. His family is straight out of Punch and Judy - Dad (Luciano Federico), in particular, wackily smacks anyone in sight at the slightest provocation. Imagine what they do when Renato (whose astringently acrobatic self-pleasuring methods seem more attuned to a porno tape) begins asserting his pubescence.

Tornatore, apparently, is linking the townspeople's oppression of Malena - or their timorousness at refusing to come to her aid - to the spineless way Italians succumbed to fascism during World War II. Which isn't that interesting a point. What's particularly creepy is the way he posits Renato - a veritable stalker in training - as Malena's lone, fawning champion.

The filmmaker's attitude toward Malena is as simple-mindedly retro as his protagonist's. Only in a severely old-fashioned movie can you have a whole town of boobs scandalized by a beautiful, free-spirited woman (``Malena,'' meet ``Chocolat'').

Bellucci is asked to do little more than appear insouciant and work her hips; Sulfaro has most of the heavy lifting as the kid driven mad with unrequited lust, and he's fine. Lajos Koltai's cinematography shows off Sicily to fine effect, even if the story doesn't; veteran composer Ennio Morricone's score is very pretty, but could as easily serve scores of other movies. Which is pretty much what ``Malena'' feels like.

``MALENA''

(Rated R: sexuality, brief nudity, language, brief violence)

The stars: Giuseppe Sulfaro, Monica Bellucci.

Behind the scenes: Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. Produced by Harvey Weinstein and Carlo Bernasconi. Released by Miramax.

Running time: One hour, 34 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Santa Monica 4, Fine Arts Theatre, Hillcrest 5.

Our rating: Two stars

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) ``An everlasting Piece''

(2 -- cover -- color) ``All the Pretty Horses''

(3 -- cover -- color) ``Thirteen Days''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 25, 2000
Words:588
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