Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena was, in hindsight, far less than its reputation would have you believe, and whose exaltation I’ve always regarded with mild bewilderment and pin on whatever residual goodwill there was left for its auteur, who claimed the world as his oyster 12 years before, after Cinema Paradiso somehow nudged Italian cinema back into the spotlight, becoming the universally-beloved arthouse film for people who don’t like arthouse films. Prey as it was to a gnawing sentimentality, Cinema Paradiso was nevertheless seized by this confluence of mischief and wonderment that gave it a litheness and buoyancy that was nowhere to be found in the middling, ham-fisted predictability of Malena. You can argue, of course, and to be fair, Malena has retained a coterie of die-hards to this day, but the only aspect of it that’s resistant to argument, or indeed, to dissent, was, and still is, the intoxicating smolder of its star , Monica Bellucci.

The consensus reality among cineastes was that, after WWII, neo-realism begun to progressively exhaust its surplus. Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 Umberto D. was sort of its last bow and more or less the point when Italian cinema began to splinter and diversify, into pink neo-realism, into Spaghetti Westerns, into giallos, into the vibrant climate under which the hormonal phenomenon known as the Italian Goddess would emerge and hold sway, tapering off in the 1980s and becoming, in 2000,  little more than remaindered exotica many times re-purposed by advertising into pop cultural iconicity. But here was Monica, on the screen, in the now, a few years before she posed on the cover of an American magazine wearing nothing but Iranian caviar, embodying its quintessence, rekindling its fervor, evoking on one hand, the earthy sultriness of Anna Magnani in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and on the other, the robust sensuality of Daniela Silverio in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman.

Movie stars, of course, routinely undergo being clustered, some would say objectified, into collective, and predominantly physical, stereotypes. It’s branding. Boil it down and the Italian Goddess comes from the same fetishizing impulses that infect us today with Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Or, to bring it to closer and less annoying iterations, the Hitchcock Blonde and the French ingénue, both of which proliferated in pretty much the same 50s/60s period of overlap. But where the Hitchcock Blonde was all about icy mystery and the French ingénue about swoony obliviousness, the Italian Goddess was about a sharpness of feature so fierce it refused to succumb to either enigma or doubt, statuesque glories but leavened by vulnerability, feeding a fantasy of indomitable yet attainable beauty, navigating their way in a world sticky with the wiles of men. You think of Claudia Cardinale’s tragic bride being engulfed by the town in her first masterful sequence in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, of Elsa Martinelli’s wildlife photographer turning the jaunty safari she joins on its head, and softening crusty old John Wayne while she’s at it, in Howard Hawks’  Hatari!. You think, too, of  Asia Argento’s call girl brokering a dangerous defection in Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, and of Isabela Rosellini’s torch singer embroiled in the prickly suburban malaise of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

Asia and Isabella were the other two Italian actresses in the first glimmers of the noughties that had achieved similar measures of profile as Monica. Coincidentally, both were legacies, daughters of Italian cinema’s two most ubiquitous auteurs. Between the three of them, they managed to represent the various permutations that fall under the Italian Goddess subgenus.  Asia came on like a feisty iteration of her father’s giallo damsels in distress. And the parallels drawn between Isabella and Giulietta Masina, the waifish prostitute in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and his eventual wife and muse, more than make continual sense. And Monica, you trace her back to the Italian Goddess of Italian Goddesses: Sophia Loren, Italian cinema’s crossover superstar, whose allure managed to upstage even the shadowy elegance of Carol Reed’s optics in his criminally under-seen The Key.  Resplendent, ominous, heartbreaking Sophia.

But Italian Goddess  pre-eminence is something I ultimately reserve for and cede to the impossibly beautiful Monica Vitti, if only for the work she did with Michelangelo Antonioni. In Il Deserto Rosso, their fourth film together, the suffocation of human connection, the slow poisoning of whatever tenuous interstices transpire between its characters, is poeticized through blasted images of encroaching industrialization: a sudden shout of color turning out to be a small flower in an indifferent field of grey waste, a cargo ship passing through a line of trees, two men dwarfed by a gigantic and seemingly sentient plume of smoke. The fragile beauty overwhelmed by her surroundings and forced to burn through it is, in many ways, the précis of the Italian Goddess journey. And centering things here is the spectacle of Monica as a lonely housewife seemingly spiraling into madness. But is she really going mad? Or is she, in her colossal frustration from fighting a losing battle against this consensual deadening of emotions, the only one coming to her senses? In the film’s quasi-famous "orgy" scene, where everybody can't/won't/don't know how to articulate their hard-ons, Monica is the only one who opposes the torpor and pops those allegedly aphrodisiac eggs. She rolls them in her mouth, savoring it, before turning around to face everyone else and proclaiming ,with equal parts sarcasm and seduction, disgust and defiance: "I feel like making love." 

*originally published in Vault

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