Malena: Allegories about Art, Rape and Nazism

by on Jul.21, 2011

Joyelle’s thinking about Fascism as a kind of emblem of extremist art, as well as Megan’s thinking about The Path and the trope of the Dead Girl strangely ties into thoughts I’ve been having about the somewhat cheesy movie Malena, directed by the guy who made Cinema Paradiso in the 80s and starring the exceedingly attractive Monica Belucci. I didn’t particularly like this movie when I watched it a couple of weeks ago, but it’s a movie that brings together rape, Nazism, dead girls and boys, and Art (the movies, of course) in a way that has occupied my brain quite a bit since watching it. It seems specifically to speak to the recent concerns on this blog about the relationship of art and Crime.

In “Cinema Paradiso” this connection between art and crime was very much a concern: the priest forces the projectionist at the local movie theater to cut out the erotic climax of all the films (usually kisses), leaving a kind of absence that causes everyone to boo and hiss. The projectionist later goes blind in a fire I think – as if he had watched to omuch art, that it had made him blind. However, in the end, when he dies, the projectionist leaves behind a movie for the protagonist of all the cut-out kisses, creating a kind of movie-within-the-movie to end the movie.

[In this regard it’s like (or the opposite of) the criminal artistry of “Tyler” in Fight Club who splices in porno images into nice movies, or the hero of Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, who finds pornos embedded in normal movies (a discovery that then leads to his death).]

This kind of erotic criminality is made more interesting in Malena.

Basic story: there’s a hot woman from elsewhere (Malena/Belucci) who’s brought to town by a local who marries her. Then he goes off to war. This woman is so hot that when she walks through town everyone stops and stares at her and shout “bonjourno” and the protagonist, who’s an early teenager, and his gang of pubescent boys follow her around. Although she doesn’t talk, she wields an enormous power over the town. Then a report comes back that the husband is dead and this causes all kinds of trouble since she’s now a free agent. Different men – including married ones – try to or imagine that they date her, culminating in a trial where she’s accused of having an illicit affair (though it might just be seen as an extreme measure to make her talk). She’s acquitted but nobody believes her because she’s so attractive. Ultimately she has to allow herself to get raped/whored in order to get food because nobody at the market will sell her food. Then the Nazis show up (of course!) and she’s pushed into having sex with them. When the allies liberate the town, the townsfolk beat her up brutally and cut her hair and send her away to another town where she supposedly becomes a prostitute. But then her husband comes back, missing only an arm, and he goes and gets her and everyone treats her nicely b/c they feel guilty and b/c now she’s not a free agent.

A pretty standard sexist tale about a Mary Magdalene-ish character (Malena is short for Magdalene). But I’m leaving out the protagonist, and it’s his relationship that turns this into a somewhat more interesting allegory about art.

At first the protagonist and his gang follow Malena around, “gaze-ing” at her. But then the boy goes criminal: he climbs up on the wall of her house and finds a small hole through which he spies on Malena as if in a personal movie theater. And on the first occasion of this spying, about 15 minutes into the movie, he sees her dancing around by herself in her underwear and she accidentally lets one tit slip out of her negligee. We see it just for a second but it stuns the boy and it overwhelmed at least my expectations of another corny “coming-of-age” movie. It wrecks the movie: this wonderful breast wrecks the tastefulness of the movie, threatening to turn it into a porno. In other words, it’s the clip that the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso cut out, or that Tyler in Fight Club cut in.

The boy becomes obsessed and starts jacking off obsessively (masturbation is of course “counterfeit sex”), much to his family’s dismay. They punish him but he keeps sneaking out to look into this private movie projector. As the movie continues, he sees the truth behind the gossip – that Malena is forced into sex, rather than luring these men to have sex. However, we the viewer are not again given the tit, the sexual image, just the lead up. That original tit sets going a kind of porny expectations that is frustrated, not satisfied until the Nazis show up and the protagonist overhears someone say that she’ fucking the Nazis in a hotel. At that moment, the boy imagines her naked and fucking the Nazis and we finally see Monica Belucci naked and it’s too much for the boy and he blacks out.

The father then realizes he needs to give him sex and he takes him to the real whores (in that they are quarantined off in the brothel and never seen around town) and he loses his virginity with a woman who looks just like Malena – a counterfeit version of Malena.

Further emphasizing the role of art: the image of Malena fucking is split into a bunch of images at once. On one level that’s because she’s fucking a whole bunch of Nazis, but it’s more interestingly a foregrounding of the art of movies – it calls attention to the movie technology (much like Herzog does in his films). And it’s of course a moment of instant “versioning” (of her, of the Nazis). So that Nazis, sex and blacking out is about the movies.

It seems that the liberation that soon follows and the mob-violence against Malena are part of the same dynamic of frustration and liberation. The Nazis represent a kind of totalitarian art, an art that is utterly criminal and utterly saturating, a regime of art that gives you the censored vision of Belucci nude, but also a regime that generates violence.

And during the punishment, Malena’s body is again shown, but this time deroticized by the mob violence. It is as if the body was punished for finally being disrobed by the Nazis. Which is why Roger Ebert objected to this violence as too much, incommensurate to her sin – it’s not her sin, as much as the sin of art (of course this kind of thing did happen, just not within the boundaries of the coming-of-age genre). Or perhaps: it didn’t follow genre conventions properly.

So to summarize: The original “sin” of art – looking through the peephole and seeing Malena’s gorgeous body revealed – generates all kinds of counterfeits (jacking off, listening to a record that she also had playing in her house, going to the brothel), ultimately, by the hidden logic, even the ultimate “art work,” Nazism. This foreign extremist art regime releases all art in a way that blacks out the boy and the town ultimately has to be “liberated” from it by another foreign invasion (this time by the sensible allies). So this to me seems to be a parable of the crime of art.

It’s also a parable that utilizing some of the tropes we’ve been discussing on this blog – for example the dead woman/dead man, a trope that does seem to me to be fundamentally about art (Poe’s dead women tend to come back alive, or as vampires, or as German castles with occult/Lynchian interior design). The silent Malena is in some way the dead woman, mysterious in her silence until the town makes her speak through its attempt to make sense of her (as a vixen temptress, as a criminal adultress), but then she comes “back to life” with her once-dead husband and the way she is brought into the order is through the people giving her stuff in the market; ie paying her back.

OK, enough about this corny movie.

No, one more thing, while searching for the trailer for this movie (posted above) I came upon tons of “tribute” videos, ie videos people have made themselves in homage to the movie. And the interesting thing is that they seem to be entranced like the boy into making art that gazes at Malena, removing all the violence in an act of Internet masturbation. Here’s one:

The thing I like about these tributes is that the “violence” of the montage (which removes all the plot and just focuses “the gaze” on the “pretty woman”) highlights the violence of the “gaze.” In this one, she seems tired of being looked at (where as in the movie, at this point she’s been raped and starved).

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    I dunno, Johannka. I haven’t seen this movie, but it’s honestly hard to imagine how the sudden appearance of the “wonderful breast” could upset anybody’s expectations about anything. If the movie focused on the teenage boy jerking off (esp. if he were liberally eroticized), that’d break with an assload of expectation (despite the fact that teenage girls are regularly posed in all kind of porny tableaus in mainstream film).

    I like your summary about crime and art and the generation of counterfeits, and the whole model works resoundingly well unless, of course, you don’t actually give a shit about Malena’s “gorgeous body.” Then there’s no daemonic collapse of art/eroticism, no narrative expectation (the beautiful body will be revealed!), no payoff. No sense of awe. No criminal fun!

    I know the art/crime/counterfeit model can be mobilized around any set of sex/gender combinations, but it so rarely strays from its hetero norms (and clearly doesn’t here). It’s an ugly species of visual/cultural gridlock. This inflexibility makes for “totalitarian art, an art that is utterly criminal and utterly saturating…” (if one can actually stomach the glamor of these terms, which serves to aestheticize some pretty serious imbalances in power).

    In work after work (and interview after interview), Duchamp noted that the history of Western art was very much centered on a quasi-private male viewing of female flesh (the nude). He held that art that gives pleasure to the eye alone (the retinal shudder!) is more or less a boring species of soft core. He was, of course, in the process of inaugurating conceptual art, but his critique rings exhaustingly true.

    I’m kind of over the staging of (silent, violated) naked women as the principle vehicles for art, limit experience, crime party. Can we please find a better party. Can someone please bring out the female criminals and (con-)artists. Can someone please cover up the girl and break out the cocks.

  2. Johannes

    Lara,

    I’m not saying this is a good or even a particularly interesting movie. It’s most certainly not! It’s a pretty bad movie! But just because a movie is bad doesn’t mean one shouldn’t think about it!

    It does deploy some interesting motifs about art – and it does use the motif of art as represented by the Nazis. And it’s failure are interesting to me. I mean that trailer suggests this is going to be one of those awful coming of age stories, but it totally fails because suddenly you have rape and nazis and weird peepholes – weirdnesses the movie doesn’t seem aware of. It even has one of those awful voice-overs to keep it all together.

    As for the breast: I’m talking from experience. It upset my expectations of the movie. And Roger Ebert, who seemed surprised that the townswomen should suddenly beat the hell out of this woman in an incredibly violent scene.

    Duchamp may be right, but that would prove another reason to think about this movie. It’s a movie most certainly about men looking at (a) woman. If this is a key facet of our culture, why not try to think through it? (Though like I said, you’re not going to get an argument from me that this is a good movie.)

    But also I don’t agree with the rejection of “retinal art.” I find “retinal art” very interesting.

    Johannes

  3. Lara Glenum

    How do you read this against Dogville, Johannka?

  4. Johannes

    Yes, that’s a very interesting comparison. Afterall, the silent woman in Dogville (Nicolle Kidman) becomes a genocidal fascist in the end (kill em all, burn down the town etc).

    Johannes

  5. adam strauss

    “break out the cocks.”

    yepyep!

    And get the women devouring–nourishing!

    Too–let’s break out the non-normative genitals! And more pitlicks please!

    And please-please-please girl-girl which whirls away from heterosexual gaze catering.

  6. Lara Glenum

    O Johannka, you know I’m a total retinophile! Just tired of the same visual tropes being deployed ad absurdum.

  7. Derek White

    Rape seems to be a common metaphor for wartime atrocities in Italian film, especially post-war. La Ciociara (i think Two Women in English, one of the women being Sophia Loren) is probably the best example of this, and manages to be really disturbing without really showing any violence or sex. Not that they were raped by nazis or fascists (they are raped by Moroccan allies after liberation). In many ways it shows respect for women to think that the soul of Italy is embodied in them, but the ending of most Italian films of this time are fatalistic and depressingly hopeless. And this respect for women (or at least their virtue) is something that has definitely been thrown to the wayside in these times of Berlusconi. So yes, perhaps Fascism was a good thing, at least for art and for upholding virue and integrity. Just like you could say the same about Islamism, especially when you start thinking about crime (virtually non-existent in Islamic countries). And speaking of Vittorio De Sica (who directed La Ciociara),The Bicycle Thief is another great study on crime at odds with personal belief/virtue in post-war Italy.