Over the course of the 98 sexually charged minutes that comprise Malicious (original title: Malizia), Italian actress Laura Antonelli cements her screen persona as a fantasy figure, because every scene shows men fantasizing about her figure. And while the film itself is problematic, Antonelli delivers much more than an erotic charge. She’s believable and likeable and vulnerable, even when the narrative surrounding her seems far-fetched. It’s also worth noting that Antonelli benefits from the artful compositions and lighting of master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who gives Malicious more of an elegant sheen than the lurid narrative deserves.
After his wife dies, fabric salesman Ignazio (Turi Ferro) discovers that his wife arranged for a housekeeper to take her place. The housekeeper is Angela (Antonelli), a humble and self-sacrificing young woman who seems unaware of her own beauty. Yet Ignazio is highly aware of Angela’s looks, as are Iganzio’s two grown sons, especially teenager Nino (Alessandro Momo). Angela proves herself useful by cooking wonderful meals, helping Ignazio’s youngest son overcome a bedwetting problem, and straightening Ignazio’s household. All the while, Ignazio becomes more and more obsessed with Angela, eventually enlisting the help of a priest to get the church’s blessing for marrying Angela. Concurrently, Nino makes sweetly flirtatious gestures, such as leaving flowers in Angela’s room every morning, until her acknowledgment of his kindness gives him license to act more boldly. He gropes her while other people are in the room, and he starts demanding peeks at Angela’s body. Inexplicably, she’s aroused by his misbehavior. In one scene, she lets Nino peel off her panties while they’re both sitting at the dinner table with the rest of the family (and the aforementioned priest). In another scene, she performs a striptease even though she’s aware that Nino has brought a teenaged friend to join him in watching Angela through a peephole. And so it goes from there.
The psychology of Malicious gets so twisted that the film makes zero sense except as an exaggerated form of male wish-fulfillment, and in fact, Nino seems a lot more like a dangerous stalker in many scenes than a love-struck admirer. Somehow, Antonelli glides through with her dignity intact, even though most of the movie is set to raunchy music suitable for a dingy burlesque hall, and even though the climactic scene is a chase that would have felt at home inside a horror movie. The kicker, of course, is that Malicious is ostensibly a comedy. If you feel women exist only to serve men, then, yeah, sure, Malicious is a hoot and a half.
In any event, Malicious elevated Antonelli to the status of a minor international sex symbol, so for the remainder of the ’70s, most of her movies received American releases. In 1979 alone, U.S. audiences got to see the saucy pictures The Divine Nymph (originally released in Italy in 1975), Secret Fantasy (a holdover from 1971), Til Marriage Do Us Part (recycled from 1974), and Wifemistress (previously issued in Europe in 1977), as well as The Innocent, a posh Luchino Visconti drama that originally graced European screens in 1976. Antonelli continued playing sexy roles, amid other acting jobs, until 1991, when drug charges pulled her into a 10-year ordeal of legal battles. She never acted again, and she died in 2015. Ironically, Antonelli’s last film was a reprise of her early conquest: She and fellow castmates reunited for Malizia 2000 (1991), a direct sequel to Malicious.