- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2001

Sicilian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore, whose movie "Malena" can be seen at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Shirlington, says the image of Sicilian women during World War II and immediately thereafter always attracted him.

"These were figures that were liquidated from the folkloric image, but they had a very important function in the history of Sicily, recognized by certain authors," he says. "One of them was Luciano Vincenzoni, who was a screenwriter and created the character of Malena in a short story that I had wanted to do for many years."

In this faded tradition, Mr. Tornatore explains, "women are always the central motor to what happens, but sometimes the Sicilian woman is forced to live in silence, to hide her desires and frustrations.

"To me, that makes them more mythical and mysterious — women who knew how to wait. They may repress every desire they have," he says. "Now everything has changed, fortunately. In the last 40 years, it's as if a century had passed. But the silent Sicilian woman remains a powerful tragic figure."

Mr. Tornatore, who recently was in New York City to promote his latest feature, tells reporters, "I will try to answer in English even if my English is no good."

Actually, Mr. Tornatore's English has made great strides since he toured on behalf of his third feature, "Everybody's Fine," a decade ago. He seems to comprehend every question put to him and requires only occasional assistance from a translator during round-table interviews, also attended by his leading lady, Monica Bellucci.

Miss Bellucci began transforming herself from a fashion model into an actress about the time Mr. Tornatore was emerging as a celebrated filmmaker with his second feature, "Cinema Paradiso," the revered 1989 Academy Award winner as best foreign language film.

A few days later, Mr. Tornatore passes through Washington on a national tour for "Malena," accompanied by the same translator. Her fluency seems to have arrested his own command of English to some extent. He replies almost exclusively in Italian during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, deferring to translations that sound at once impassioned and thorough.

Set during World War II, "Malena" contemplates the allure and the vicissitudes of a victimized beauty, played by the stunning Miss Bellucci. Her character seldom utters a word.

Nominally a schoolteacher and the wife of a soldier who appears to have been lost in action, Malena becomes vulnerable to loneliness, jealousy, prostitution and eventually atrocity. She is adored from afar by an adolescent boy named Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who eventually finds himself in a position to perform a pivotal act of kindness that helps rehabilitate the stoic and suffering heroine.

Certain aspects of "Malena" recall Mr. Tornatore's haunting 1995 feature "Starmaker." Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, it also hinged on the victimization of a lovelorn young woman.

Mr. Tornatore was born in Bagheria, a small town near Palermo, in 1956, so he postdates World War II by several years. But he grew up in a setting and culture that still teemed with memories of the war.

"They didn't talk about anything else except the war," he recalls. "I could tell so many stories that were told to me by parents, grandparents, relatives, neighbors. The war remained this overwhelming experience.

"I heard a lot about the chaos that took place after the Americans arrived and all these pent-up feelings just exploded. People were hungry. They assaulted the warehouses of the upper classes. They robbed everything they could. They looted all the Army barracks that had been abandoned as the Americans approached."

A souvenir of a typical looting excursion became a fixture of the Tornatore house. "My mother, a very young girl at the time, told me that along with her father, while all the disorder was going on, she looked for something to salvage, to bring home," he says. "They went into this school, which had been requisitioned as a headquarters by the retreating army. They got there so late after the big mob that there was nothing left to steal. Rather than come back empty-handed, my grandfather detached a door and took that. It became the door of the kitchen of the house in which I was born."

In one sequence of "Malena," Mr. Tornatore revives a prop that civilians improvised during the war: a lamp fashioned from flat irons in order to finesse blackout restrictions.

"My grandfather did this," he says. "Sometimes he couldn't stand to be in the house all night long. If it was very dark, he lit coals and put them inside an iron. The light reflected downward, through the holes in the iron, so that you could see where you were placing your feet. But it was not illumination that could be detected by airplanes."

Mr. Tornatore felt a proprietary interest in the "Malena" short story about a decade ago, but he attributed the movie's realization to Miss Bellucci, whom he first met while shooting a cosmetics commercial about five years ago.

"It wasn't me to find her," he says. "I knew the story from many years. Only when I met Monica, I was surprised that she reminds me of this story. I thought she would be a great Malena, even if I was not sure to make the movie. I told her that I have a story that I think is very good. I promise to call her when I am ready. Five years later I finish the script for her. Only for her."

The director explains that while he needed time to absorb the "Malena" inspiration, his actress also needed time to make the transition from modeling.

"Monica is very famous as a model," Mr. Tornatore says, "but in Italy there is a strong prejudice, not unfounded, that models cannot be good actresses. I confess I was thinking the same thing. Working with her, I understand she is different. She had decided to learn, to be better and better. Now this is a very good moment for her. Everyone in Italy agrees about her performance."

Miss Bellucci, whose English betrays few hitches, recalls feeling somewhat apprehensive about the role, which contradicted her own modernity quite severely.

"I love the idea of this film," she says, "but how can I make this woman exist without words? I don't speak very much, and when I do, it's in Sicilian, which is not my language. I came from a small town near Perugia, which is north-central Italy. Tornatore prepared me many tapes for my Sicilian, or his Sicilian. It's like I had a secret script. In each scene I have an interior monologue, known only to me and Tornatore."

It required some imagination and pain for Miss Bellucci to project herself into the time frame.

"To understand Malena, you must understand the mentality of Sicilian women in that period," she says. "Tornatore knows exactly what he wants, he knows exactly that period. Women's place in society was only as mother or wife. They existed through men. The other women in the town hate her because she provokes men's desire, just being herself.

"I understand some of the feeling. I come from a small town. But me and Malena are completely different. I'm the product of a different era. I fought all my life to be free and independent. I had an ethical problem with Malena. Sometimes I hated her. Why she does that? Why she becomes a prostitute? Why she forgives everybody who is cruel to her? Of course, I'm Monica from 2000 and she's Malena from the 1940s.

"It's beautiful to see this kind of antique femininity, but it's so dangerous for us to be like that. We can't be like that anymore."

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