Someone (Bill Blakemore), in an article about the The Shining, had said that it is a part of a multi-film oeuvre ‘about mankind’s inhumanity to man that he’s [Stanley Kubrick] been making at least since Dr. Strangelove’. In this post I will write about another movie on this topic, but directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (as I had promised once).
The movie is Malena, and some reviewers might call it a movie about erotic romance. While that is not completely wrong, I think the main theme of the movie is definitely not erotic romance. Nor is it the ‘sexual awakening of a boy entering puberty’ as one reviewer suggested, even though this is one of the themes. For me, it is quite clear that the central character of the movie is not the voyeuristic boy who is getting ‘sexually awakened’, but the woman who is the object of his (distant) love and who does not seem to be aware of him. She is the central character because it is she who is the centre of everyone’s attention in the town in which the movie is set, not just of the boy. The fact that the movie is named after her, supports my view, but my view is not dependent on that fact alone.
She, i.e., Malena (played admirably by Monica Belucci, whatever you might think of her other performances) looks like ‘the goddess of love’ or even ‘the goddess of sex’ as someone mentioned (I can’t give the references, because I had read all those reviews long ago and right now I am not in the mood to search for them again). But, for the town’s people in general, she is like a beautiful witch. And, accordingly, is constantly hunted and ultimately hounded out like a witch. For the simple reason that she is different from others and, what is an even bigger crime in our civilization, keeps away from others; doesn’t mingle with the mob. Keeps aloof. That’s unpardonable. That she is amazingly beautiful so that all the men (and boys) of the town are obsessed with her, and (like the boy narrator) not just fantasize about her but talk about her all the time. And they don’t say very nice things when they gossip about her.
The women are even more obsessed about her. First, because she is more beautiful than them; second because their men are after her (even though she doesn’t encourage any of them), and third because she keeps aloof and doesn’t put herself in her place where she won’t be (so to say) above themselves. For example, they probably wouldn’t have so much ‘pathological’ hatred for her if she kept her good looks somewhat hidden and dressed badly and became part of the gossiping community and by following the social norms, sent definite signals that she doesn’t think she is better than them.
You see, it’s not enough that she doesn’t send any signals that is she is better than them. She has to send clear signals that she doesn’t think she is better than them. That’s a social law. She could only be exempted from this law if she were something like a royalty, a princess, or if she were a powerful woman actually above all of them in the sense that she had power (legal or otherwise) to punish them, rightly or wrongly. The film is set in Cicily of the Fascist era. So, if she were the female Il Duce, or the wife of the Il Duce, or at least the wife of a powerful general, she could have been exempted from this law.
There is another fact which makes her a witch. Her husband is a soldier and is away during the war. She lives alone. And then the news comes that her husband is dead. In the extremely patriarchal society of which she is a member, another social law applies: no husband, no status. A society in which you ‘measure yourself’ in inches and there is no chance that you can go beyond ten. Your human worth is less than ten inches.
Her father is alive, but he lives in his own house. What’s more, he is deaf and a teacher in the school in which the boy protagonist studies. So we are again and again shown scenes of the classroom where Malena’s father is teaching and the boy students (I have seen the movie twice, but I don’t remember any girl student) are all the time competing with one another in saying the nastiest things about Malena while addressing her deaf father who is teaching them. Finally he is sent an anonymous note saying something like Malena sleeps with everyone in the town, after which even the father breaks his relations with his daughter. Malena used to go to her father’s place to take care of him, but suddenly one day she finds that he has locked her out.
Then the father is killed in an air raid and there is the funeral. The life goes on in the same way. By which I mean that the men, the women and the boys are making the same kinds of comments about her during the funeral ceremony while at the same time rushing to kiss her and offer their ‘support’.
Since she doesn’t really have the power to punish them and is only above them in the sense that she is more beautiful and more of an attraction to the men, she becomes the witch of the town. And, following the age old traditions of witch hunting (which are still present in all societies of the world), she is hunted and ultimately hounded out. She does return, but only when her soldier husband comes back alive from the war (who was thought to be dead) and brings her back with some anonymous help from the boy protagonist. He loved her and she loved him too, even if she was considered a prostitute by the people of the town (or village, if you please). The fact was that she was pushed into prostitution after a long spell of hunting and hounding and social boycott where no one would even sell her fresh food. She had to go to absurd lengths just to buy food and the men who obliged her, wanted to be paid back in the currency of her physical beauty.
As the war ends and the ‘liberating’ American army marches in, we are shown the culmination of the women’s hatred for Malena. We know that there are many prostitutes in the town, but as soon as the war against Fascism ends, the women celebrate the event by dragging out Malena and almost lynching her. They tear her clothes and cut her hair, leave her bloody and half naked and direct her to leave the town. (Having no other option, she does leave the town later). When there has been enough beating and the women stop, we see her shouting for the first time, facing the men who had been silently watching the whole thing. I don’t want to describe this, but as I have come so far, I can’t avoid it. Her shout or cry or whatever you call it expresses all the anguish which has been accumulated over the long preceding period. The shout is probably addressed to the men, asking them (I imagine) whether they don’t have anything to do or say about what is being done to her, when till now they were all so obsessed with her and wanted to be her lovers. In fact, earlier we are shown an almost hilarious (it would be hilarious if it wasn’t tragic) competition among the men for the claim of her affections, right in front of her door. The men actually fight over who is Malena’s lover and the fight is broken up by their wives. Malena had no direct or indirect role to play in this incident. And, of course, the public opinion decides that the culprit was Malena. Believe it or not, a court case is brought against Malena about this affair.
This court case is just one of the humiliations which she has to go through daily. Even right after the opening scene we see a bunch of teenage boys waiting for Malena to come out and to stalk her right through her walk. This turns out to be a daily routine, and the boy protagonist has an advantage in this because he has just got a bicycle. Mercifully, he is a bit discreet in doing this.
(More to come…)