Giuseppe Tornatore, the gifted Italian filmmaker who concocted an appealing blend of sweetness and poignancy for 1988's "Cinema Paradiso," turns to another coming-of-age tale in Malena, a memory piece set during World War II. But the mixture this time is all wrong: It's an offputting blend of low comedy and high melodrama, centered on the story of an adolescent boy's rather creepy obsession with the flesh-and-blood woman of his wet dreams, and rudely interrupted by an ugly sequence of ferocious brutality. The film, comic only in the crudest sense of the word, never quite gets back on course after that mood-altering scene.
Malena, played by the fetching, statuesque Monica Bellucci ("Under Suspicion"), is apparently the only hottie around in Castelcuto, a tiny Sicilian village where she's the token war bride, tending to the household until her husband returns from duty fighting for Mussolini. Her job description calls for taking brisk walks along the sea wall and across the town plaza, where the 27-year-old beauty is followed en masse by hormone-crazed boys on bicycles and mentally molested by the boys' fathers and uncles. Shouldn't the latter group be off to war rather than lurking about?
Similar scenes in last year's "Woman on Top" were played for laughs, but there's a sinister edge here. The results are neither lighthearted nor pretty, as all the women in town, apparently driven daffy by jealousy, begin to spread scurrilous rumors about Malena, an outsider relatively new to the community. The men, in turn, believe those rumors about Malena's newfound promiscuity, and their pursuit turns even hotter.
As the story unfolds and 13-year-old Renato's preoccupation grows ever larger, Tornatore's intentions become clear. The director-writer, pointing a finger at the small-mindedness of insular communities, tries on one level to make a lofty observation about the importance of tolerance: Malena's difference, her ravishing good looks and relative diffidence aren't deserving of the contempt of the townies, particularly the women.
Yet on another level, the filmmaker has no qualms about treating his star the way she might be examined in a Playboy video. The camera practically ogles her, capturing every swish of her derriere and zooming in close on her bra, particularly when little Renato indulges in some voyeurism, perching on a tree and watching as the object of his love and/or lust waltzes around her living room in skimpy underclothes. Renato subsequently practices an at-home ritual, becoming intimate with a garment stolen from his true love's clothesline. "Porky's" meets faux Fellini: So much for the purity of the kid's intentions.
At about the halfway mark, the story shifts from the slightly ribald tale of Renato's infatuation to that of Malena's degradation. Desperate for funds to keep her household afloat, she turns first to the panting local men and then to the Nazis living at the local hotel. Her easy acquiescence to those who would take advantage of her in part is meant as a commentary on the region's failure to resist the march of fascism.
"Malena," without question, has its charms, beginning with Bellucci, who might remind some of a young Sophia Loren. The period setting is nicely enhanced by the work of Hungarian-born cinematographer Lajos Koltai ("Sunshine") and that of veteran composer Ennio Morricone. There are several offbeat touches, too, including quick daydream sequences that have Renato imagining himself as Tarzan and as other heroic figures from '40s movies. The sum effect, though, is strain and awkwardness: It's as if Tornatore wasn't sure which of two stories to tell, so he gave us both, rendering neither very well.