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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

MALENA ** 1/2

STARRING: Monica Bellucci and Giuseppe Sulfaro

DIRECTOR: Giuseppe Tornatore

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

RATING: R for sexuality, nudity and rough language

THE LOWDOWN: From the maker of "Cinema Paradiso," a World War II-era drama in which an adolescent boy falls for a beautiful outcast

Leave it to a 13-year-old boy to be more concerned with the resident bombshell walking past him than bombs dropping around him. Renato, the protagonist of Giuseppe Tornatore's coming-of-age film set in World War II Sicily, is so consumed with an enigmatic widow that he barely notices Hitler's troops goose-stepping through the streets. Instead, he lives in a rich fantasy world where he's both the savior and lover of the movie's title character.

That's "Malena" as in Maddalena or Magdalene, namesake of the New Testament's penitent prostitute. This Malena is not that kind of woman - at least not at the beginning of the story. But she keeps to herself, and she's originally from another village, characteristics sufficient to arouse seedy suspicions among her small-minded neighbors.

Played by model-turned-actress Monica Bellucci, Malena, the voluptuous teacher's daughter, emits a radiance that turns heads regardless of age, sex or spouse standing nearby. The men loathe her because she's unobtainable; their wives seethe with jealousy. On the force of unfounded gossip, the villagers transform Malena into a putana non grata.

The merchants sell her rotten produce. The unemployment agency won't help her find work. Even her father disowns her. Desperate to keep food on the table, Malena dyes her long brown hair red and takes up with the German occupiers.

Through the eyes of the adolescent narrator we watch Malena's transformation from wife to widow to whore. It's a limited vantage point, however, one that ultimately dilutes the movie's emotional strength. Though "Malena" strives for the rich sentiments of Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso," the movie's structure allows it to cover only the well-trodden terrain of a coming-of-age drama.

As Renato, Giuseppe Sulfaro speaks volumes with his brightly expressive face. In one of the movie's lighter scenes he snatches a pair of Malena's panties from her clothesline, gazing at them adoringly before falling asleep with them draped over his face. Still, Sulfaro can't carry the weight of this grim drama on his bony shoulders. For her part, Bellucci works wonders in the realm of the unspoken. When Malena averts her gaze from the stares of the townspeople, she acknowledges her looks as a dangerous liability. When she makes herself over as a prostitute, the defiant scorn in her eyes indicts everyone who ostracized her.

What "Malena" lacks in emotional depth it makes up for in haunting beauty. The camera lingers over Bellucci, completing the seduction with careful attention to details, such as garters poking through a white skirt. Through the course of the movie Renato's sun-bleached village grows increasingly gloomy, coinciding with the war's progression and Malena's fall from grace.

There's another side to this juxtaposition of lightness and darkness. When American troops liberate the village, the joyful celebration that breaks out is suddenly overshadowed by an act of vicious revenge on Malena. It's a scene that lingers long after the movie's over, as much for its surprising savagery as Tornatore's sneak attack.

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