Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, starring Monica Bellucci and Giuseppe Sulfaro
Rating: 15

Set in 1940s Sicily, 'Malena' sees the return of Giuseppe Tornatore to the site of 'Cinema Paradiso', the film that originally made his name. However, it isn't merely the setting of his previous work that Tornatore replicates in this, his fourth film, which is adapted from a short story by Luciano Vincenzoni. The theme of a young man's coming of age - narrated in retrospect for added poignance - and the historically specific time-frame are just two of the ingredients that Tornatore retains from the film that won him an Oscar in 1990.

The film begins on a memorable day, for Italy and for the young male protagonist. July 10, 1941 is the day that Italy enters the Second World War and, more significantly for thirteen year old Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), it is the day that he catches his first glimpse of sultry Sicilian beauty, Malena Scorda (Monica Bellucci), wife of an absent soldier and reputedly 'the most beautiful ass in Castelcuto'. Desired by all men and detested by all women, Malena's presence in the town excites an ugliness in her neighbours that contrasts with her own stunning physical beauty. Universally renowned as a whore, Malena is forced by the harsh circumstances of war to play the role carved out for her by the townsfolk's malicious gossip. Meanwhile, Renato, as befits his surname, fantasises about her, spies on her, steals her underwear and is wholly consumed by his love for her.

On paper, 'Malena' has everything required for success: a sweeping score courtesy of Ennio Morricone, the stunning cinematography of Lajos Koltai ('The Legend of 1900') and a theme at which Tornatore has proved himself adept in the past. The result is, however, formulaic, emotionally manipulative and lacking in depth. As tragic as her fate is, it is difficult to sympathise with Malena because we, like the people of Castelcuto, are never permitted to penetrate the icy exterior that she has constructed for her own protection. Parallels between Malena's (mis)fortune and that of Fascist Italy remain underdeveloped and what is intended as a wistfully romantic tale of first love proves little more than the diary of a teenage stalker. Art-house by numbers, Tornatore's film ultimately resembles its heroine; it looks good but lacks the necessary depth to make it truly beautiful.

Nickie Byrne