The key to the new film from Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) is in the names of his central characters. The family name of Renato (Giuseppe Sulfaro), who ages from 12 to 16 in this wartime tale, is Amoroso, which reflects his tendency for swooning romanticism. The object of his amour is the beautiful widow Malèna (Monica Bellucci), which is short for Maddelena, a name derived from the Biblical prostitute who finds redemption, the first hooker with a heart of gold.

Malèna fairly glows with nostalgia for a lost Sicily, and in the glorious, sun-bleached town of Castelcuto in 1940, conformity is the rule, and the fascism of Il Duce is readily adapted. A few people object openly, including Renato’s father, but since Tornatore portrays the Amorosos as outright buffoons — broadly comic and easily dismissible — anything reasonable they may have to say is lost. In fact, nearly every character in this film is a stereotype or tired cliché, the exceptions being Renato and the vessel of his desire, Malèna.

Tornatore’s camera fetishizes the title character to such an extent that Malèna can be viewed as a vivid example of what film theorists call the male gaze: This woman isn’t an individual; she merely functions as a vessel of male desire. Repeatedly, a group of young men (a gang of older boys Renato eagerly joins) stalks Malèna, lining up to watch her stroll by and panting with wolfish glee. Tornatore wants this atrocious behavior to be seen as funny (he takes the view that humor derives from public humiliation), and extends these attributes to every male in Castelcuto. Which means that whenever Malèna walks into town — her head up but eyes downcast — she’s running a gantlet of lustful expressions from men and hateful looks from women.

Renato, in the midst of full-blown sexual awakening, watches Malèna and tries to anonymously intervene on her behalf. When he prays to a saint to save Malèna from the town, he’s succinctly identified the danger.

Tornatore has spiked this saccharine tale — of a gallant devoted to Old World chivalry who suffers the sweet pain of unrequited love — with some bitter truths about the rigid rules of behavior for women in Sicily, often enforced by other women (Malèna suffers through a public humiliation of shocking brutality), and the ways in which conformist behavior can easily become mob rule.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-541-0180.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at [email protected].

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