In the United States, the two best things that can happen to a foreign language film are (1) distribution by Miramax Films and (2) Oscar nominations. As a skillfully made specimen of Oscar's favorite species of foreign film -- the nostalgic tale about an innocent young boy growing up against the backdrop of a turbulent period in his nation's history -- Guiseppe Tornatore's Malena had no difficulty securing a deal with Miramax. But when Italy chose The Hundred Steps as its candidate for the 2000 foreign film Oscar, Malena's chances for Academy acknowledgment seemed to have disappeared. Miramax, refusing to accept defeat, launched a ferociously aggressive campaign on behalf of the film's scorist, Ennio Morricone. The studio spared no expense, even resorting to "poor Ennio" radio commercials that decried the composer's failure to win a scoring Oscar for any of his 300 films. The ploy worked, and it is doubtful that Morricone would have been nominated without Miramax's marketing genius. But it is equally doubtful that the marketing team would have made the sale if its product were any less meritorious. Morricone's work is rich and multi-faceted, representing musically the numerous reactions of the film's characters to the enigmatic central figure, the beautiful and silent widow Malena. The score, like the movie, is by turns playful, romantic, malevolent, and brutal. It uses traditional Italian instrumentation, gorgeous symphonic string arrangements, carnivalesque out-of-tune pianos, and resonant viola and clarinet solos. Much of the music is just as impressive on Virgin's soundtrack album as it is in the theater, but the CD suffers slightly from some odd sequencing choices. The two snippets of the score's beautiful main theme, "Malena," are clumped together in the first six of the CD's 18 tracks. As a result, the last two thirds are not as listenable as the beginning and the album's conclusion is strangely anticlimactic. But for film music lovers, the album is worth buying for those two tracks alone. Tender, reverent, immaculately structured, and without a hint of sentimentality, "Malena" is clearly the work of a master film composer in peak form.
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AllMusic Review by Evan Cater