Set in World War 2 Sicily, Malèna [Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000] begins as the story of a young boy's infatuation with the most beautiful woman in his small town. Renato [Giuseppe Sulfaro] watches Malèna from afar, fantasises about her and dreams of her. Indeed, beguiled as I am by Ennio Morricone's haunting score, I regard the film, in some ways, as a "hymn to adolescence".
But it is much more than that: as the war progresses, Malèna [Monica Bellucci], always detested by the women of the town because of her beauty, falls upon hard times, culminating when her husband is reported dead. The women take revenge by forcing their shopkeeper husbands, who have previously admired Malèna's looks, to deny her any of the diminishing food supply. Eventually the desperate Malèna takes a German officer as a lover and protector, a decision which, with Liberation, causes her to be treated as all known female collaborators were: she is set upon violently by the townswomen, has her head shaved to mark her out and of course, no one will help her.
Note that I used the word "decision" in the above paragraph: the jury will always be out on whether becoming a collaborator in this way is a "decision" or whether the women had no choice, if they wanted to live. In times that were unimaginably difficult for everyone, it seems to me to have been easy for women who were, at least, protected by marriage to have judged the "Malènas" of the world. One of my specialist subjects at university was the literature of France and Italy during that period and I long ago concluded that, in occupied countries, there were few heroes among the non-combattant population: there is a myth that there were, but Le Chagrin et la Pitié [Ophuls, 1971] comes closer to the truth. Collaboration, you see, could happen on so many levels that it is very hard to define it: in some ways, if you just did your job and lived your daily life as best you could, that was collaborating. We would all like to think we would have been heroic but the reality is that the majority of us might just have tried to keep our heads down and get through it. That, admittedly, is a long way from the "active" collaboration of sleeping with the enemy, but who among us really knows what we would do in order to simply survive?
Whatever your thoughts on this weighty matter, if you are interested in Sicily and in this period, I urge you to seek out this film: beautifully shot, it is a reminder not only of the joy and pain of being young, but of how human beings behave in extraordinary circumstances, and in particular - perhaps sadly - of how cruel women can be to other women. You'll be pleased to learn that there is a sort of reconciliation at the end.