I had a feeling I was going to like this one.
For starters, as my ex girlfriend used to take great pleasure in pointing out; despite my occasionally gruff (some might say hot-headed) personality, I’ve got something of a sentimental streak. Which goes a long way in explaining why I’m such a big fan of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Academy Award™ winning Cinema Paradiso and, at least partially, why had high hopes for this, his newest film.
And then there’s Monica Bellucci.
I sauntered in to the Dig office one afternoon last month and was thumbing through promotional material provided by Miramax. This is normally a pretty ho-hum affair, single stills and a little blurb about the films they’ve got planned for the upcoming quarter. This time, however, I stumbled upon one of the stills from this film and it, let’s say, gave me pause. See, Monica Bellucci is a stunningly beautiful woman. I happen to fancy stunningly beautiful women. Since the plot of the film calls for her to be the object of a young boy’s longing, I figured I had a winner. I mean, if there was ever a reason for some heavy duty longing, she is obviously it.
It turns out she’s a good actress, as well. See, you can have everything.
With the above factors in place, it was just a matter of this film filling in the blanks and I’d be done for. I’m happy to report that it does just that and tosses some extras in, just for good measure. This is the poignant, bittersweet tale of discovery that I’d hoped it would be and it’s also a well-written, well acted, funny and sometimes quite touching film.
Belucci is excellent in her passive, oftentimes painful role as the town’s obsession, the beautiful Malena. Newcomer Giuseppe Sulfaro presents a vibrant, engaging performance as Renato, the boy whose sweet obsession drives the plot. Add in some imaginative fantasy sequences on the part of the pining Renato (a couple of cinema inspired flights of fancy take the cake), a couple of heart wrenching plot twists, cinematography that captures the stark beauty of Sicily and Enrico Morricone’s fine score and you’ve got a complete package.
Great stuff, just not for the black- hearted among you.
Q & A with Guiseppe Tornatore*
RL: What goals did you have with the casting? Why did you choose Monica Bellucci for example?
GT: I chose Monica because. when I met her I had known about this story for five years. I never thought I was going to make a film out of it. But when I met her, she made me think about this story. So, I started thinking about it, maybe just subconsciously. I started to see that it could be possible- to see the character. And this is a story that, until you start to envision the character you don’t think that the character could actually exist. So when I met her I started to think about it- to elaborate on the story in my mind. And after a while I decided to make the film.
When I wrote the film, I wrote it for her- I knew that Monica Bellucci would be Malena. That was extraordinary. I love writing knowing in advance who the actors are going to be. It’s happened a few other times. It’s always been a stronger experience.
RL: And Guiseppe Sulfaro? Where did he come from?
GT: We looked for that character while I was already writing the film. He came from Messina. We did a very complicated search. We took three thousand boys under consideration. All of them were Sicilian. We had various levels of selection and they got more and more intense- tests that, as the process went on, became more serious. At the final level, there were nine boys. The nine boys that were left shot an actual scene- with costumes and the crew an everything. And Giuseppe Sulfaro rose to the top out of these.
RL: Was it intentional to find a first timer?
GT: It was an obligatory intention. (laughs) Because at that age it’s really difficult to find a professional actor. I was 99.9% sure that I would find a boy that had never acted before. Maybe I could have found a boy who had done a church play or something. (laughs) But, there were a few out of those out of the three thousand we looked at, but they weren’t very good.
RL: I think Americans are going to compare this to Cinema Paradiso, because of the idea of remembrance, the idea of longing. Although it’s a different way of approaching it, I think they’ll see similarities. How do you feel about that comparison?
GT: I think they’ll make that comparison. They’ve always done that for all of my films. Even films of mine that were completely different. Here it’s obvious that there are certain analogies and certain atmospheres that the films have in common. So, here it’s to expected. It’s normal.
Cinema Paradiso is about a little boy that discovers the magic of the cinema and this film is about a little boy that discovers love- in his own way. They’re two similar designs, but two completely different stories.
When I made The Legend of 1900, a few people said all you had to do was transform the ship into a movie theater and it would have been like Cinema Paradiso. (laughs)
It’s to be expected that these comparisons are drawn.
RL: Was this film was cut for American release?
GT: All foreign films that come to America are cut. Some more and some less. Here we cut ten minutes. We lightened some of the erotic scenes. That was mainly what we did.
RL : How do you feel about the cuts that were made?
GT: The cuts weren’t made. I cut them.
With the Legend of 1900, I had to cut three quarters of an hour of an hour or else New Line wouldn’t distribute it.
RL: Just for the length?
GT: Yes, they said it was for the length. Even though in the past few years, 80% of American films were over two hours and no one complains about that. It’s hard for our films to make it over here- there’s the translation. You have to cut, you have to modify. It’s not easy.
RL: Is it worth it?
GT: I think so. Because, say you write an article that’s a hundred lines long. Maybe it’s a great article. Say a foreign newspaper decided to buy it, but they ask you to cut eight lines. I say it’s worth it, because your thought, your idea stays.
I don’t experience it as a punishment. I see it as an inevitable mechanism that’s determined between two different cultures and two different markets. They’re never cuts that are designed to punish or to change the style. Once, with my film, The Starmaker, there was some dialogue that dealt with things that were too Italian. The dialogue referred to certain people that only Italians could possibly know about. Miramax said, nobody going to understand this dialogue because no one is going to know who these people are.
What can you do? (laughs)
*Conducted through an interpreter.
This review and Q&A were originally published in December 2000 in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston.)