Outfitted in various shades of black, gray, and silver, Giuseppe Tornatore looks entirely Milan, but he was actually born and raised in Sicily. Indeed, most of the director’s films, including Cinema Paradiso, Everybody’s Fine, The Star Maker, and the new Malèna, are set at least partially on the island he calls the “land of my birth.” On a mid-December promotional visit to Washington, however, Tornatore stops just short of denying this.

“I haven’t made all my films about Sicily,” he protests through a translator. “There are certain stories where it’s instinctive for me to set them in Sicily. Certainly, when I make a film about Sicily, there’s a stronger connection, a bond. But not all the stories I’ve told have taken place in Sicily. And they couldn’t have all taken place in Sicily.”

Indeed, Tornatore’s previous movie, The Legend of 1900, was set mostly aboard an ocean liner. For most viewers, however, the transient tale lacked the appeal of the director’s other, more rooted work. Tornatore remembers the project not as an artistic disappointment but as “a very tough film. I was exhausted. I wanted to stop for a year or two.”

Instead, he ended up making Malèna, which is based on an unpublished short story written in the ’60s by Luciano Vincenzoni, who’s best known in the United States for co-scripting some of Sergio Leone’s westerns. The film starts as a bawdy tale of 13-year-old Renato’s lust for a local goddess perhaps twice his age, but then turns poignant as World War II takes first Malèna’s husband and then her status in the community.

Vincenzoni brought the story to Tornatore after the success of 1988’s Cinema Paradiso. “I read it and I was interested in it, but I absolutely had no intention of making it into a film,” the director says. “Then, about five years later, I shot a commercial for Dolce & Gabbana with Monica Bellucci, and, oddly, she reminded me of that story. It astonished me. Because I had forgotten about the story. And I said to Monica, ‘You would be perfect for the part. If I decide to make the film one day, I’ll call you.’”

The connection between Bellucci and Malèna, Tornatore explains, is that the former “wasn’t only beautiful—she was mysterious. Behind the beauty of her eyes, I saw a world that I wanted to know. And that was the same characteristic as the character Malèna. She’s not just beautiful. There’s a mystery within her, an unknown, that our little boy wants to discover.”

The director was also impressed by Bellucci’s “real serious desire to act. When I met her, I knew that she wasn’t the usual model who thinks she can make movies just because she’s pretty. She was conscious of the fact that her beauty was secondary to her desire to make films.”

When the story that would become Malèna surfaced again, after another five years, it was because of producer Carlo Bernasconi, who insisted that Tornatore should go back to work soon after The Legend of 1900. “I said, ‘No, no, no. If I make a film, it has to be a very simple one,’” the director recalls. “And he said to me, ‘Why don’t you make that film about the little boy and the lady?’ And I said to him, ‘How do you know about that?’”

It turns out that Tornatore had once mentioned the story to Bernasconi, who had promptly bought the rights. “It seemed like a bizarre sign to me,” the director says. “So I started thinking about it.”

Bernasconi’s zeal for Vincenzoni’s scenario was soon seconded by another producer, Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax made an American hit out of Cinema Paradiso—in part by cutting 30 minutes of it. While Weinstein was in Rome, Tornatore told him the story, and the American mogul joined his Italian counterpart in demanding that Malèna be made right away. “They decided right then and there,” Tornatore says.

Although the director objected that he was weary, he decided that Bernasconi and Weinstein’s insistence that he go right back to work was “a manifestation of affection. That’s how I interpreted it. It seemed strange to me, too. Generally, producers are the people you go to tell stories to, and they tell you in return, ‘No, maybe we shouldn’t do this.’

“Faced with all this enthusiasm, the things that I always liked about the story came out,” he recalls. “It’s not so common to be faced with such enthusiasm for a project. So I called Monica Bellucci and said, ‘Now we’re going to do it.’”

The director’s script expanded Vincenzoni’s story, changing both the setting and the ending and adding details. Those who’ve seen Cinema Paradiso will not be surprised to learn that Tornatore added the sequences in which Renato imagines himself as a hero in various movies. “The heart of the story is the same. But a lot of things changed in the adaptation,” the filmmaker allows. “When you start with a 15-page story and you have to develop a 120-page script, some changes have to happen. It’s inevitable.”

Malèna is considerably simpler and shorter than Cinema Paradiso— even the Miramaxed version. Reportedly, a few minutes were snipped from the film, but Tornatore insists that Weinstein exercised no control over the movie. “No, absolutely not. I wrote the script with full artistic freedom. They read it. They made a few comments, but nothing major. I don’t like making films based on a mandate. I haven’t made one that way. If I were able to make films like that, I would have made a lot more by now. And I’ve only made seven.

“I do what my films ask of me,” he continues. “This was a simple story. It’s not an epic. It’s a story that happens in the arc of a shorter period of time, and it’s very simple. There’s no reason for it to have a longer, more drawn-out narrative. The Legend of 1900 was more of an epic. I would have never been able to make that film in an hour and a half.”

If Tornatore rejects the notion that he frequently depicts Sicily in his work, he admits that the island suited his conception of Malèna. “This is a story about sensuality, passion, and Sicily allowed me to emphasize, to underline these elements. Because it’s a land of color and of very sensual atmosphere.”

Despite his alliance with Miramax, the director says that “for me it’s not important that my films are seen in the United States. What’s important is that they’re seen by the most people possible. You can’t make films today just thinking about one’s own viewing public. The market is a lot bigger. The world is a lot smaller. You have to look around. You can’t make a film only for your own nation. I try to understand if my films would be able to communicate to a public that doesn’t speak my language.”

This may explain why Tornatore is reluctant to be identified with colorful, sensual, but isolated Sicily. He’s the only Italian director of recent years to have all his films distributed outside his country, and he considers the Italian movie industry creative but commercially frail.

Every Christmas, he notes, new comedies routinely fill Italian movie houses and cause annual delusions of a cinematic renaissance. “In two weeks, they’ll say, ‘Oh, the Italian movie industry is healthy.’ That’s the way it is in Italy. As soon as there’s a moment where the films aren’t doing well, everyone says the Italian cinema is dead. Then as soon as films come out that are successful, everyone yells, ‘Ah, the rebirth of the cinema!’”—Mark Jenkins