Saturday, August 4, 2012

Film Review: Malena (2000)

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s my friend Andrew and I were frequent attendees at Toronto's trio of grindhouse cinemas: the Rio, the Biltmore and the Coronet. Of course, back then the term grindhouse didn't exist. We just thought of these theatres as places where for one low price you could watch five extravagantly crappy movies. The patrons were exclusively male and either retired, unemployed or homeless. A lot of snoozing went on at these grindhouses. One of the three had a cat that liked to patrol up and down the aisle, feasting on the mice that hoovered up the spilled popcorn. And the washroom of the Biltmore was either a gay cruising spot or a drug den. I never hung around long enough to find out which.

The bill of fare at these cinemas usually consisted of a kung fu film, a horror/slasher offering, an action movie of some kind (western, cop, adventure), an older A-list film, and finally, and inevitably, some softcore porn. The porn usually took the form of a sex comedy, and they came from the four corners of the world, although by the time they made it to Toronto they were usually heavily scratched and missing whole scenes. And in this way I received a beginner's course in sexy-time world cinema.

Robin Askwith-Jagger
The Brits were represented by the Confessions of (a Window Cleaner/Driving Instructor, etc.) series of films, and, to a less sexy degree, the Carry On films. The Confessions franchise (four in all) starred Robin Askwith, an actor who owed his success to looking like Mick Jagger's brother. Whether he was a better-looking or uglier brother is up for debate. Anyway, Robin's role was always that of a cheery, chirpy working-class bloke, Cockney division, who stumbles and bumbles his way into ogling, or having sex with, a variety of women, most of whom sit a few rungs up on the social ladder. The key point in these films (and the Carry On films) is that the men are generally reluctant Lotharios. They always seem baffled or embarrassed by the prospect of sex. This certainly helps fuel the comedy, but the lesson learned is that Brits find sex to be an essentially ridiculous activity.

As for German sex comedies...well, comedy in reference to anything German is probably stretching a point, but they did try. Their films often took the form of traveler's tales, beginning with a group of men and women meeting in a railway carriage, bar or hotel who decide to pass the time by telling stories of sexual escapades. As a storytelling device this format dates back to Boccaccio's The Decameron, but it was an effective way to trot out six or seven erotic tales. And the Germans were all about the eroticism. No fannying about like the English; the German films kept the comedy at its most basic level ("Oh, no! Your badly-behaved dachsund has torn my dress off!") and moved straight to the romping. Germans seem to take their sex seriously.

American sex comedies ran towards stories about horny teenagers in high school. They were dull and predictable, and the teenagers always looked closer to their thirties than their teens. Occasionally the grindhouse would offer up an older American blue movie, the sort of film that featured tales of wife-swapping and lots of polyester clothing. I'd have to say Americans just don't approach sex with any kind of imagination.

And now we come to the Italians. As you would expect from a country that produced Silvio "Bunga Bunga" Berlusconi, Italian sex comedies have off-the-charts levels of testosterone. The men in these films are inflamed and engorged by the slightest glimpse of a woman's anatomy, and to that end a lot of time is spent in scenes of voyeurism. And once they spot naked female flesh, their exaggerated cries and hoots act like a Greek chorus of lust . Need I mention the accompanying hand gestures and arm waving? Interestingly, these films often had the least amount of actual sex. The whole point of them was apparently to show male desire reaching the boiling point. The other peculiarity of these films is that they often feature young teens (sometimes very young teens) lusting after adult woman and even bedding them. Want another oddity? Each of these films seemed to have a requirement for one terrifically ugly male to end up getting it on with a Sophia Loren lookalike. I suppose the answer to all this weirdness lies in the toxic combination of Catholicism, machismo and patriarchy, but it makes for some awesomely bad and entertaining schlock.

And how does Malena fit into all this? The answer is that it's nothing less than a big budget, epically-scaled version of the classic Italian sex comedy, which thereby makes it possibly the worst Italian film of all time. Why? Because it's attempting to hide it's softcore, exploitation roots behind a patina of production values, top quality cinematography, hordes of extras, and the heady combination of Monica Belluci's sex appeal and acting ability. I hope she got a boatload of lira for this film because the director doesn't miss a chance to exploit her body. When she isn't being spied upon while undressing, she's being groped by a conga line of gargoyle-ugly men. On top of all this we have a boy barely in his teens who worships her from afar and likes to imagine himself in her arms, breasts, legs and so on. The plot? Malena (Belluci) is the town hottie and all the men lust after her. Vile rumours circulate that she's bedding men for money, rumours that everyone is happy to believe in. Malena eventually decides she might as well profit from her reputation and becomes a prostitute, largely because it's the only way she can provide for herself in World War II Italy.

Malena is also a blatant ripoff of Fellini's Amarcord, copying that classic's comic tone and style down to the last detail. There's a definitely a case of copyright infringement here. The other film it steals from is Malizia, a classic cheapo sex comedy from the 1970s starring Laura Antonelli, the Monica Belluci of her day. That film was also rife with voyeurism and horny little boys. The most shocking thing about Malena is the respect it's garnered over the years. There are special edition DVDs, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Criterion Collection added it to its catalogue one of these days. This is further proof, as if any was needed, that the film world is still in the sweaty hands of 16-year-old boys.

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