This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Bill Shannon’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
It wouldn't be too hard to fall for a woman like Malena, played by the stunningly, impossibly gorgeous Monica Bellucci (who, in 2000, may very well have been the most beautiful woman on earth). But I wish there was more to her as a character. As it stands, she represents lust in the eyes of the men of a small Italian town, as well as the jealousies of its women. She is also an ideal in the mind of Renato, a young boy caught in the throes of puberty.
The film is more about Renato than Malena herself, though he operates mainly as a covert observer in all the events of Malena's life in WWII Italy. (If he were just a few years older, his spying on her would be creepy. But here it's wistful and nostalgic.) They should have renamed this film The Male Gaze.
Malena's lot in life changes throughout -- married, widowed, shunned, charged, whored, attacked, fled, returned -- but her demeanor never changes. She seems neither a bad person nor a saint; she is a cipher with the face of an earthbound angel, and the body of a Greek goddess.
Everyone in the town talks about Malena, whether they know her or not. Women assume she is sleeping with all the men, whether it is true or not. So she decides to simply do the things she's being accused of anyway. But her new foray into open sexuality makes her an even more heartbreaking figure in Renato's eyes, since to him, she was previously a pristine, chaste figure. Now she has been sullied in Renato's eyes. But Renato remains infatuated with her.
My observation is this: to Renato, all the men who lust after Malena are horny pigs, but is Renato himself truly any different? Is his infatuation with Malena more "pure" than theirs? I don't feel it is; he operates from the same lust and objectification as the rest of the men, and yet we are intended to feel he doesn't. While Renato is not lewd, or a gossip, but he is just as lusty as everyone else.
Malena is a character is hard to like, since she just doesn't have any personality assigned to her. The most brutal scene, when the townspeople get their revenge on Malena is supposed to be seen as tragic since she is not pretty anymore. And when Malena returns to the town years later, we are supposed to be happy that she has finally gained the begrudging acceptance from the women who beat her. But fuck them! They should be apologizing to her.
It works as study of how a boy's heart can be broken when his pure vision of beauty not only lets him down, but also remains out of his reach.