I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura)

Laura Clifford 
I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura)
Robin Clifford 
Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) lives a pretty care free life in a poor rural Italian village.  His only worries are whether he will be the 'rotten egg' in races through undulating golden wheat fields or if it is his turn to go down to the cellar to fetch wine for the family meal.  One day, Michele wanders away from his group of friends and discovers a hidden excavation that houses a boy of about Michele's age, chained to a stake in the ground.  Michele keeps his discovery secret, befriending the strange boy, but when he trades his secret for a coveted toy he discovers horrific truths that change his entire worldview in "I'm Not Scared."

Director Gabriele Salvatores ("Mediterraneo") finds the world through a 10 year old's eyes before opening them to some adult realities.  By placing a child in a stunning, country landscape (cinematography by Italo Petriccione, "Mediterraneo") in a time of political unrest where he finds a frightening creature and adults act mysteriously, Salvatores has made a film reminiscent of Spanish masterpiece, "The Spirit of the Beehive."  Here, however, innocence is lost.

Michele is established as a young boy of caring and chivalry by his treatment of his little sister and another girl who runs with his group.  When he first spies the pale and dirty boy kept in a deep pole, he's frightened, but he returns and offers friendship and food.  'My dad is Pino, who is yours?' he asks the other.  'I'm dead - are you my guardian angel?' says the captive.  The scene turns scarier when he discovers that Filippo's (Mattia Di Pierro) previous meal had been delivered in the smallest pot of a set just like the one in his mother's kitchen.

When Sergio (Diego Abatantuono), a stranger described as a friend of his father's, moves in temporarily, the adults begin acting more secretive and Michele begins to observe.  News reports of a child held for ransom and helicopters flying overhead rattle the adults.  Through the crack of a doorway, Michele sees his father draw a lethal match stick in the kitchen.

Salvatores places portents within Michele's idyllic world early on.  A black crow circles overhead, a bird is found impaled and threshers crest a hill.  In a poetic shot, Michele's mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, "The Chambermaid on the Titanic") hangs the wash, white laundry fluttering against the horizon, hiding things.  Pino (Dino Abbrescia) comes home from a trip, bearing the gift of a souvenir, a lighted gondolier which is recalled in the film's final scene with its helicopters and guardian angels.

Reportedly, the source novel includes the underlying theme of Michele trying to conquer his fears. Only fragmentary references remain in the film, but Michele's fierce recitation of a nursery-style rhyme ('Spiders with hairs') as he marches to his destiny is perhaps the film's most moving moment.

During one hot summer in a remote village in Southern Italy in 1978, 10-year old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) discovers another boy, Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), chained in a hole beneath an abandoned house. Frightened at first, curiosity gets the better of him and Michele soon wants to help his new friend. But his plans to aid the little boy fall apart when he overhears his parents talking and learns that they and the rest of the adults in the village are taking part in a nefarious ransom scheme involving the captive child in “I’m Not Scared.”

Helmer Gabrielle Salvatores made quite a career splash when he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with his wonderful, funny, sometimes sad and melancholy World War 2 feature, “Mediterraneo.” That film, about a group of eight Italian soldiers sent to garrison a small, isolated Greek island and the affect it and its natives has on them, is a lighthearted, yet deeply meaningful story of change and understanding – and love. Salvatores departs from such whimsy with the adaptation of Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel (with the screenplay by Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano) about an easily frightened 10-year old boy who must overcome his fears to save another.

Michele is a follower in the gang that rides their bikes looking for games and mischief in the sun-drenched rural southern Italian town. He is protective of his little sister, Maria (Giulia Matturro), sacrificing his chance to be the winner of a race (and not the rotten egg) to help her find her glasses. The race ends at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere and the kids explore their new find. Michele is drawn to the place and returns, alone, the next day. He discovers a dried up well covered with a sheet of corrugated iron. He imagines vast wealth of “gold and gems” hidden in the hole and pulls the cover away. What he sees is a foot protruding out from a blanket. He drops the cover and takes off like a bat, thinking he has just seen a corpse.

Michele may be a timid boy but he is also full of youthful curiosity. He returns the hole again and again, even after having the bejeezus scared out of him when the creature in the hole jumps out from the darkness. Michele realizes, though, that this is not a monster but a boy his own age. He is afraid to find out why the boy, Filippo, is chained in the hole but that does not stop him from giving his new friend water, bread and, even, taking him out of the dreadful hole for a day in the sun. He begins to read clues from the adults in the town, overhears them talking with a newly arrived stranger, Sergio (Diego Abatantuono), and sees a news report about a missing, kidnapped boy – Filippo. The sinister talk of the adults - even his mother, Anna (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and father, Pino (Dino Abbrecsia), are conspirators in the heinous crime – force Michele to a brave decision to save Filippo from murder.

“I’m Not Scared” is fine film for older children (if you can get them to watch an Italian film with English subtitles) that takes the historical events and turmoil in Italy in the 1970’s and plugs them into the life of a young boy in a remote village. This superimposing of period politics over the life of Michele makes for a hair-raising adventure of discovery, salvation, rebellion and heroism. Young Guiseppe Cristiano is well cast as the unlikely hero of the story and, with his wide-eyed innocence, gives a decent performance as Michele. You see the world through his eyes and the story maintains that view to the end.

This is a nicely crafted coming of age film by Salvatores and he deftly shapes the story into an appealing package. The use of the lush rural landscape magically captured by Italo Petriccione’s masterful lens gives the mystery-adventure an other-worldly look with the peaceful-seeming locale and unlikely hero. Unfortunately, from a marketing standpoint, I don’t expect that “I’m Not Scared” will find a niche audience in English-speaking venues, at least for the target audience of older youngsters. This is a shame as it is a fine, youth-oriented adventure tale. I give it a B.

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