Malena is one of the most affecting movies I've seen of late. In a discussion on anime and WWII movies over the weekend, I voiced the theory that Grave of the Fireflies was even more depressing than Schindler's List because of the slim margin of disempowerment it imposes on the viewer. Few movie watchers could hope to effect a substantial victory over the Nazi war machine--few of us would even be in Schindler's position where a marginal additional investment could save one of many lost lives. But by framing a tragic conflict more narrowly, and by making the characters' fate revolve around something so simple and foreign to our modern notions of abundance as a lack of food, Grave of the Fireflies made the viewer acutely conscious of his own helplessness, playing up the tragic element by accentuating his frustration.
Malena imposes a harsh fate on its titular character as a result of a similar difficulty: after her soldier husband is reported killed in action, a beautiful widow is forced to take more and more extreme steps to feed herself in wartime Sicily. But desperation opens her to sexual exploitation by the men of the town and beyond, and finally gives their catty wives a chance to punish Malena for being what they thought (because of her great beauty) she was all along.
Most reviewers seem to have two bones to pick here: that Tornatore is no Fellini and that Malena is not as complex as Cinema Paradiso. I've never seen anything by Fellini or Tornatore's first hit, so perhaps these are valid criticisms. But Malena stands on its own as a devastating portrait of the effects of sexism by men and women (no man will hire Malena because their wives fear her allure; the women refuse to sell Malena food on the open market and drag her into court with baseless allegations of adultery, which she must then pay for with the only currency a beautiful widow has, and even that sometimes is robbed from her, not freely given). While many reviewers bashed the film for its unsubtle depictions of lustful village men and jealous village women, I found the women's constant persecution all too believable, and the dramatic post-liberation scene some thought over the top is supported by historical evidence of similar humiliations.
The film itself, to me, had a fairly consistent theme; the brief levity of the first half hour or so quickly changed to a bittersweet account of Renato's steadfast obsession with a woman whose fate was sealed by the town's iron prejudices. Then again, I don't find scenes of parent-child abuse particularly humorous, so I cannot agree with allegations that the father's exaggerated rages whipsawed the film between farce and dirge.
The Village Voice's review was characteristically obtuse, with Dennis Lim claiming that the women's revenge was "a despicably lazy signal that spectators should adjust the nature of their objectifying gaze--from lust to pity." If anyone only switches gears from lust to pity at that point--after Malena has been widowed, slandered, orphaned, raped, and reduced to prostitution to feed herself--he is less a human than a walking libido. I recommend this movie, but be warned that its lighthearted marketing conceals the true nature of the film.