The stark beauty and deceptive serenity of the Sicilian landscape, evocatively captured in the sumptuous wide screen images of cinematographer Italo Petriccione, serve as an ironic counterpoint to a story of innocence betrayed in Gabriele Salvatores’ mesmerizing adaptation of Niccolo Ammaniti’s novel “I’m Not Scared.” The almost fairy-tale quality of the result–in the real Brothers Grimm fashion, with adult wickedness lurking beneath the surface of childlike simplicity–suggests the intensity of a film like Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter.” The narrative also recalls the theme of the mutual incomprehension between children and their grown relatives that marked Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games”–though the ending, in this case, is far less devastating. Salvatores’ film isn’t the equal of either of those masterpieces–it lacks the surrealistic magic of the first and the overwhelming poignancy of the second–but the fact that it can be mentioned in the same breath is an enormous compliment.
At the center of the story is Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), a gangly ten-year old lolling away the heat of a brutal Mediterranean summer in 1978. He and his village pals, including the young sister he’s often called upon to tend, find a deserted, ramshackle house past the towering wheatfields and the pig farm of a reclusive neighbor; and when Michele returns alone to the place to retrieve his sibling’s glasses, he discovers a bedraggled, chained boy in a cavern concealed beneath a rusted plate of metal. He tells no one of the child, instead bringing the boy food and water and eventually even removing him from the hole to frolic in the fields and enjoy the sunlight and fresh air; the imprisoned youth, initially near-blind from his ordeal and clearly desperate (he refers to himself as dead, and assumes his parents are, too), gradually rallies, though he remains shy and withdrawn. The critical moment for Michele comes when he learns not only that the boy is Filippo (Mattia Di Perro), a child kidnapped in Milan and being held for ransom, but that his parents–emotionally charged Anna (Aitana Sanchez Gijon), who careens from anger to solicitude, and charming but secretive Pino (Dino Abbrescia)–as well as the entire adult population of their little settlement and a thuggish visitor from the mainland, Sergio (Diego Abatantuono), are implicated in the crime. How Michele reacts in the face of this shocking revelation, especially when his knowledge about Filippo is revealed and it appears that the authorities are closing in on the perpetrators, provides the crux of the film’s final reels.
In form “I’m Not Scared” is a thriller, but a gorgeously lyrical one, and one of those rare films that conveys the bafflement of a child’s encounter with a world that’s still very much a mystery. Visually both the undulating wheat fields and the dark, frightening pig farm–as well as other landmarks–are seen from the fervid, haunted viewpoint of Michele. And psychologically it’s presented from his perspective, too: the inexplicable, simmering rage of Anna, the slippery actions of Pino, and the menacing presence of Sergio, as well as the carelessly cruel treatment of one another by the children and the ordinary viciousness of some of the other townspeople, are depicted as he would experience them. Even the initial glimpses of Filippo are presented like spooky images from a child’s nightmare. And the film beautifully conveys the boy’s bewilderment and inchoate determination to prevent what he gradually perceives, however dimly, as wrong. In the end he emerges as a heroic figure, his identification with the suffering victim who happens to be the same age as he so complete that he virtually takes Filippo’s fate on himself.
Taken on simply a literal level, “I’m Not Scared” may strike you as both implausible and florid. (The denouement, in particular, might seem impossibly overdone.) But of course it’s not designed to be taken literally. It’s like a cinematic dream, hazy and suggestive, atmospheric and moody, almost operatic in De Palma style. It’s very well acted, especially by the children–not only the intense but boyish Cristiano and the solemn, intense Di Perro, but those playing Michele’s cohorts as well, and the unsettling score by Pepo Scherman and Ezio Bosso adds an undercurrent of menace to Petriccione’s luminous images. All the elements make Salvatores’ exquisitely molded picture an entrancing exercise in hyper-realism.