Giuseppe Tornatore' Malena is to adolescence what his Cinema Paradiso was to childhood, a lyrical fable about the power of imagination and the perils of growing up.Glossy production values, particularly Lajos Koltai's cinematography and Ennio Morricone's score, overwhelm the simple, schematic story of this melodrama. The eponymous heroine is a beautiful woman who inspires one boy's courage and pursuit of honor amidst the chaos, conflict and intolerance that afflict Italy during WWII.

Set in Castelcuto, a sleepy village on the sunny Sicilian shore, this folk tale revolves around a ravishing beauty (Bellucci), whose husband is away at war. Every stroll Malena takes through town turns into a spectacle, accompanied by the men's lustful looks and their envious wives' resentful gossip. An army of skinny-legged teens on bicycles follows her wherever she goes just to stare at her exquisite looks.

Renato Amoroso (Sulfaro) stands out in the crowd. He's an imaginative boy who takes his desire to unexpected libidinal and obsessive heights of fantasy. Fueled by his wet dreams of romance, Renato becomes Malena's secret guard, a shadowy spy who follows closely her sensuous moves.

Sharp asymmetry defines their relationship: Small incidents in Malena's life are perceived by Renato as momentous ones charged with eroticism. Renato's parents attempt to thwart his sins–he plays with himself so hard that the springs of his bed collapse–boarding up his windows, taking him to see a priest, then an exorcist, and finally a prostitute. But Renato maintains his vigilante, voyeuristic watch over Malena as her fortunes take a dark move, turning her into the object of the town's jealousy and anger.

Disowned by her father, thrust into court, cut off from livelihood and left penniless, Malena is finally forced out of town in a public act that exposes Renato to the worst kind of provincialism. In an epilogue, set a year after her exile, Renato is once again watching Malena, but this time from a distant maturity, as she returns to town in typical Sicilian tradition to reclaim her dignity.

Malena is a cross between Cinema Paradiso, Tornatore's 1990 Oscar-winner, and Amarcord, Fellini's 1974 Oscar-winner, though it's slighter than both–basically a short extended to the limits of a feature.

In the captivating Cinema Paradiso, a boy, mesmerized by the movie theater in his small town in the years following WWII, pursued a friendship with its crusty but warmhearted projectionist (Philippe Noiret). Amarcord, Fellini's touching reminiscence of his youth in fascist Italy, combined the concerns of his neo-realist comedies with the fantasy style of his later films to produce one of his most enjoyable pictures. Though as anecdotal as Malena, the greatness about Amarcord was that, in addition to being a celebration of Fellini's youth in Rimini, it was also a cautionary tale about the conditions that give rise to fascism. Whereas Amarcord was at once a personal film and a satirical scrutiny of Italian society, Malena is politically lightweight.

Watching Amarcord, you laughed at the adventures of Fellini the boy, but you also got the scary feeling of the making of a fascist, of a psychological state of arrested development that empowers others to make decisions for ordinary citizens, while allowing the latter to have limited and frivolous freedom, expressed in the cultivation of absurd dreams. Like Fellini, Tornatore intends Malena to be a statement about the dangerous isolation that Italians experienced under Mussolini, but the personal and political dimensions of his film don't mesh.

Even so, after a number of commercial failures (Pure Formality, The Legend of the Pianist), Tornatore employs again the sentimental charm of Cinema Paradiso, his only international hit. Malena is not a great film, but it enables the filmmaker to return to the top of his old form and to Sicily, the cradle of his boyhood fantasies, to vividly illustrate the movie's riveting themes: the poignant remembrance of adolescence's transforming moments and the power of unrequited love.