Italian film I’m Not Scared is a dark and beautiful rite of passage
I’m Not Scared begins as a radiant sojourn—a half-dreamy vision of childhood and summer and the golden fields of southern Italy. The setting is pastoral, but the vaguely scary ruins of an abandoned farm, and the small cruelties of the group of pre-teen kids playing there, hint at darker undercurrents amid the naïvetà of the kids and the glories of the landscape.
Ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), the most daring and sensitive of the kids, seeks out adventures of his own and soon stumbles onto a disturbing mystery—a piece of corrugated metal near the ruins covers a deep hole in the ground, and at the bottom is a captive child, wraithlike and perhaps more dead than alive. On a return visit, Michele learns that the captive (Mattia Di Pierro) is a boy his own age. A tentative bond begins to grow between the two, but Michele continues to keep his troubling discovery a secret from his family and everyone else.
Meanwhile, there is increasing turmoil at home. Michele’s father (Dino Abresscia), a swaggering truck driver, is getting visits from some shady looking guys, at least one of whom makes periodic visits to the captive in the hole. And Michele’s mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a fierce beauty who is herself a kind of captive, shows increasing signs of distress. By the time Michele sees the captive boy’s picture in a TV report on the kidnapping of an industrialist’s son, I’m Not Scared has also become an intriguingly offbeat crime thriller.
Adapted from a novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, the film generates an uncommonly rich emotional appeal and a surprising gravity from its unhurried combination of crime tale and coming-of-age story. And much of the film’s unique appeal comes from its emphasis on Michele’s point of view—the shedding of innocence is not a matter of any one traumatic revelation, but of a series of partial recognitions that nudge him gradually toward the beginnings of moral maturity.
There is also a sense of tragedy working its way into the later stages of the story, in large part through an incisive confounding of the conventional moral simplifications associated with the crime genre. And with that comes a critique of the poverty and machismo of the culture in which Michele and his family and friends are rooted.
Director Gabriele Salvatores gets fine work out of his earthy, authentic-looking cast, especially so with first-time actor Cristiano. And both the children and the ogres in the story are seen in ways that are mostly free of sentimental clichàs. The villains in the piece, for example, are scary to varying degrees, but even the worst of them is heartbreakingly human at one point or another. Michele not only learns about good and evil in his own family, but also glimpses the face of evil amid ordinary humanity.