A director we should see more of
9 May 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Children may keep secrets to compete with the world of adults which for them is a secret, even when adults aren't trying to hide from the children what they do. In I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura) the adults are hiding what they do, and doing very bad things. A boy uncovers their dark secret, but it's a mystery to him, so he interprets it for himself through what it tells him, and through the fables, fairytales, and comic books his head is full of. He lives in the country, in the south of Italy, where there are a couple of cars and a TV and the local convenience store comes on wheels once in a while. His house is separated from the mystery by hills and fields of high grass, and across and over a hill out of sight lies the sea. The world of 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) is filled with light. His arms and legs are strong and brown from riding his bike everywhere in the summer sun. The secret he discovers is dark and blind and pale, a creature that at first terrifies him and then evokes his pity.

I'm Not Afraid is a movie that works only if you consent to see the world through the eyes of Michele but also accept that Gabriele Salvatores, the director, who's adapting a novel, isn't telling us all that's going on in Michele's mind either. This is a world of the purely physical that conceals and evokes a spiritual and moral (and immoral) world. Michele doesn't understand at first what his father is involved in, but lives in his own world of secrets, bargains, and revelations that only slowly comes to terms with what the adults are doing and tries to trump them. (A child has the advantage of being regarded as unimportant and therefore is unseen.) This aspect of the movie is reminiscent of René Clément's Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits, 1952), a story of children creating their own strange rituals hidden away from adults in a world of war filled with inexplicable mystery and terror. Paura doesn't quite have the resonance of Clément's film, perhaps primarily because it hasn't got the emotional force of a world war behind it; but it does have the mystery and the horror.

The real horror here is the greed of petty gangsters. Michele's truck driver father (who's rarely around) and a couple of shady pals have kidnapped a boy for ransom. The facts appear on the TV news that everybody watches at Michele's house and Michele pieces together a story from seeing a mother plead for mercy for her timid son and time to get together the money, and from hearing the adults' quarrels at night in his house. When police helicopters come and the adults draw straws he realizes their scheme has failed and they are going to kill the boy and hide his body to escape punishment and he must try to help the boy escape.

But the horror is also the little body in the dark hole: at first the boy - shaggy-haired, covered with mud, draped in a dark cloth, terrified himself and crazed from the isolation and imprisonment -- seems like a strange monster that terrifies Michele and us. With great economy of means, I'm Not Afraid is three stories in one: a horror story, a crime story, and a story of a boy's glimmerings of adulthood. Michele isn't adult enough to think of calling the police (even if he could in this rural place); the boy down in the hole, who he learns from the 'Telegiornale' TV news is called Filippo, is his secret and his special pet, whom he tries to feed and takes out for a walk in the high grass (Filippo is blinded by the light and staggers like a mole) and then puts back in the hole.

The risk Salvatores takes is to absorb the atmosphere of Michele's country, summer world. Only the sometimes obtrusive arty string quartet music distracts us from the slow rhythms of summer days, games with friends, the bespectacled little sister, bike rides over the gentle hills and romps in the tall grass - which, symbolically, is mowed down at the end when the play is over and Michele has been disabused of his fantasies. But not quite: he chants phrases from books to steel himself when he goes by night the last time to rescue Filippo from his new imprisonment near a pigsty. (With gruesome rustic practicality the failed gangsters plan to feed Filippo's corpse to the pigs.)

Salvatores, the director, doesn't quite leave the child's world behind himself, either: his ending is a kind of mythical wish fulfillment, an image of the kidnapped boy being saved, Michele surviving a gunshot wound, Filippo reaching out his hand to his 'Guardian Angel' (as he has called him) in a flood of light. On one level the movie is a scandalous story from the Italian police blotter. But on another it's a fable of mysterious import. Perhaps Filippo, who's the same age and at the same level in school, is Michele's dark secret underside, his imagination and his child's freedom, which the adults put in chains and try to destroy. The final music is a little too pretty and arty and the ending is a little too good to be true (more so than the book's), but Salvatores' film is a memorable evocation of childhood, brilliantly acted by the children, especially the gifted Cristiano -- with links to other striking tales of a child's discovery of adult evil like Carol Reed's 1948 The Fallen Idol. It's an astonishingly peaceful and beautiful film that manages to remain selfconsicously simple, almost opaque, without descending into cliché or self indulgence at any point. Salvatores is an Italian director of distinction (his 1992 Mediterraneo won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film) whose work we deserve to see more of.
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