When a pleasant Italian comedy called Mediterraneo won the 1992 Academy Award for best foreign-language film, a lot of observant American moviegoers scratched their heads. Gabriele Salvatores' fairytale of Italian soldiers happily stranded on a gorgeous Greek island during World War II was an outright charmer, but it certainly didn't signal the second coming of Federico Fellini. What had become of the singular passion and high style of Italian filmmaking?
Salvatores' new export, I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura), may not bowl many people over either, but this quiet, beautifully crafted meditation on growing up and facing peril deserves a long look. Its thoroughly natural cast of a half-dozen children, all of them first-time actors chosen at auditions in the forbidding southern Italian regions of Puglia and Basilicata, where Scared is set, recalls the revolutionist heyday of Italian neo-realism, and the knowing, thoroughly professional adult actors with whom these bambini collide provide just the right contrast between new and old, innocence and corruption, sunlight and darkness.
Based on an award-winning novel by Niccolò Ammaniti (who co-wrote the screenplay), the film unfolds in 1978, when an epidemic of child kidnappings for ransom reached its peak in Italy. Ammaniti was just a boy at the time -- a boy unnerved and frightened by the prospect of being snatched himself -- and when he came to write the book, more than two decades later, he deftly transferred that never-forgotten sense of foreboding to his young characters. Salvatores has, in turn, brought their vulnerability and yearning vividly to the screen. In contrast to the bulk of Hollywood child stars who cavort and preen for the cameras, these kids provide a welcome jolt of authenticity.
The centerpiece of the drama is a saucer-eyed, imaginative 10-year-old named Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who dreams and frolics his days away with his little sister and his friends in the golden cornfields of the Mezzogiorno, but whose home life is a riddle he cannot solve. His weary mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) often has no time or energy for him, and his largely absent father, Pino (Dino Abbrescia), treats him with gruff impatience whenever he does come through the door. The family is poor, its village tiny and stifling. Little wonder that the boy takes refuge in the antics of comic-book superheroes.
The rough, rural Italy Salvatores and his gifted cinematographer, Italo Petriccione, show us here has little resemblance to the picture-postcard Tuscany or romantically decadent Venice we Americans are so accustomed to. This landscape is sunlit but harsh, lovely but desolate -- just the place to introduce an element of profound spookiness into the life of a boy already baffled by the contradictions of grownup behavior. It wouldn't do to reveal too much. Suffice it to say that little Michele stumbles onto a shocking presence -- a boy his own age (Mattia Di Pierro), who's been secreted away in the cellar of an abandoned farmhouse. The thriller his discovery sets into motion is spiced with conspiracy, blood-lust and greed (this is southern Italy, after all), but all of that remains secondary to the real drama of I'm Not Scared, which takes place in the tormented mind and the awakening conscience of a boy suddenly faced with impossible choices.
This modest film's most brilliant stroke lies in the boys' dawning realization that, while they're ostensibly divided by many things -- social class, parenthood, region -- they are connected by the possibilities of joy, the hungers of youth, the power of imagination. In fact, as an atmosphere of mystery and brooding (occasionally relieved by a flood of country sunlight) grows ever deeper, Michele and Fillippo nearly merge into one being. "We're the same," the second boy allows, and he's not just talking about their common urges. This is a page straight out of Joseph Conrad, of course, even though these "secret sharers" have not yet reached their teens and their moral consciousness is very much a work in progress.
The plot, which is not nearly so crucial as the film's psychology, thickens with the addition of a sinister outsider named Sergio (the renowned Italian star Diego Abatantuono), who comes up with a solution to a problem that now belongs to an entire village. Thus do the contaminations of adult life confront the fleeting wonder of childhood. In its depiction of depravity, I'm Not Scared is as severe as the place where it's set, but its hard-won endorsement of good faith gives it the glow of benediction. It's a film full of striking images and subtle rewards.