If you've ever wanted to hate Italy, watch this movie. I seem to have reacted unusually strongly to it, but even so I thought everyone in it was appalling and I'd now recommend drilling holes in your head over marrying into an Italian family. I suppose it must be a good film, then. That's along the lines of the reaction Giuseppe Tornatore wanted me to have, after all, although presumably not quite so all-encompassingly.
The story is that of a beautiful woman in Sicily in 1940, played by Monica Bellucci. However she hardly ever speaks and we only ever see her at a distance, because our viewpoint character (Renato) is a thirteen-year-old boy who fantasises about her and masturbates so violently that at one point he's deemed to be possessed by Satan. He steals her underwear from the washing line, he spies on her naked body... and yet by the standards of this film, he's a knight in shining armour. You see, the entire world is scum. Renato is one of a gang of boys who ride after Bellucci on bicycles to stare at her. The men of the village talk about her like the worst kind of locker-room jocks. The women are no better. She's a beautiful woman who's living alone because her husband has disappeared in the war, so everyone talks filth about her and assumes the worst.
Put it this way. The other women think worse of her than they do of the local whore who'll give a hand job to young boys who sit next to her in the cinema. Bellucci's character gets treated like a lump of meat in this movie. At one point she's raped, for instance. In the end, the villagers manage to turn their poisonous whispers into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That's the stuff you're meant to hate.
The entirely subjective stuff that got on my tits was the insanely Italian nature of their neanderthal attitudes. Look at Renato's family. They're not bad people and what happens to Bellucci isn't at all their fault, but they're also emotionally incontinent and have the self-control of toddlers on crack. They're retards, basically. They don't listen to each other, but instead run around and shout without a pause like madmen. I wanted them dead.
What's more, they're all like that! The fat old rapist lawyer delivers his speech in court as if he's Pavarotti singing just before the curtain. Of course this is entirely subjective on my part and in return Italians would probably call me a dead-eyed British reptile with iced water in my veins... which wouldn't be unreasonable, but that doesn't these people aren't all still twats. To be fair, I'm sure that Tornatore would recognise what I'm saying here. His film is violently critical of that magical old Italian world and I'm sure he's deliberately underlining the unattractive side of these people. Nevertheless I suspect I've just experienced some kind of allergy.
It's set during World War Two, of course. I'm reluctant to put forward the following argument because I think it's intellectually lazy to keep suggesting that any German, Italian, Japanese, etc. film must be a metaphor for the war, but here the way they're presented side-by-side makes it hard to avoid from the notion that Tornatore's thinking of ordinary people's relationship with fascism. We begin at the start of the war. Everyone's cheering Mussolini and you're reminded disturbingly that fascism was a populist movement. Naturally fascism needs victims, be they Jews, gypsies or homosexuals, so here that's mirrored by the locals' treatment of Bellucci. Some of them are vile. Some of them mean well (Renato) but do nothing and instead merely stand and watch as a woman's life gets pulled apart. Later we have defeat, American soldiers and what could be seen as a reflection in miniature of a nation's wartime guilt.
That probably sounds heavy-going. Fortunately the film's not quite as high-faluting as I'm probably making it sound, because it's also deeply interested in Monica Bellucci's tits. There's a lot of nudity, enough that Miramax cut seventeen minutes from the American version. It's not just the characters leering at Bellucci. You could argue that this is artistically justified and Tornatore's turning us all into voyeurs, or alternatively you could say that it's sexist tripe. I think it's a bit of both. However regardless of the director's intention, you're still going to have a lot of teenage boys watching this with tissues and the pause button ready.
It's not cheap sleaze, though. On the contrary, this film was painstakingly crafted. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematography (Lajos Koltai) and Best Original Score (Ennio Morricone). I've got argument with either of those. It looks gorgeous, with a romantic glow to the picture-postcard cinematography. Tornatore shot in Morocco, because both the landscape and the people looked like Sicily in the 1940s.
The film isn't without gags. I laughed a couple of times. I also liked the bit where Renato surreptitiously defends Bellucci's honour by dribbling into people's whisky or urinating in their handbags. We also keep seeing Renato cut-and-paste Bellucci into his fantasy life, which is liable to mean exploitation porn versions of black-and-white classics like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, old Tarzan flicks, etc. Those are a laugh, although there were perhaps one or two too many of them. Overall, this is a gorgeously shot film with plenty of nudity from a beautiful woman... and if that's all you're looking for, you've come to the right place. However the story's thin, the thematic justification for the nudity is suspect and the main characters are almost entirely passive throughout the movie.
Personally I found it powerful, though. I now have more hatred in my life. Are those supposed to be grown men? Get a life, you losers...