I'm Not Scared (15)

The other side of paradise
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The Independent Culture

If nothing else, I'm Not Scared should do wonders for the tourist industry of Basilicata and Puglia in the deserted southernmost tip of Italy. At the start, the camera swoops dizzily through miles and miles of golden cornfields, running through the tall shoulder-high stalks at child's-eye level, careering across the deserted summer meadows, coming to rest in picturesque stone houses that barely constitute a hamlet, let alone a village. At one point, we see a boy's hand lightly brushing the tips of cornstalks, a knowing nod to Russell Crowe's dream-sequence amble through the Elysian fields in Gladiator.

If nothing else, I'm Not Scared should do wonders for the tourist industry of Basilicata and Puglia in the deserted southernmost tip of Italy. At the start, the camera swoops dizzily through miles and miles of golden cornfields, running through the tall shoulder-high stalks at child's-eye level, careering across the deserted summer meadows, coming to rest in picturesque stone houses that barely constitute a hamlet, let alone a village. At one point, we see a boy's hand lightly brushing the tips of cornstalks, a knowing nod to Russell Crowe's dream-sequence amble through the Elysian fields in Gladiator.

But in this rural paradise, something distinctly un-heavenly is lurking. Ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) rides his bicycle, hangs out in a desultory way with a pre-pubertal gang, arm-wrestles with his handsome, dandyish father (Dino Abbrescia) whenever he's home from his mysterious absences, and fights with his beautiful, troubled mother Anna (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). Going one day to retrieve his little sister's lost spectacles, he discovers a makeshift dungeon beneath a corrugated iron sheet and finds himself gazing down at a blanket from which sticks out a small human foot. Subsequent visits reveal the prisoner to be a once-angelic boy called Filippo, turned by darkness and incarceration into a grotesque, blood-stained, mole-eyed savage in an off-white nightie, babbling about raccoons and convinced he is dead and in hell.

It's a tribute to the sympathy and tact of the director, Gabriele Salvatores, that we understand why Michele doesn't rescue the kid right away. He treats him, instead, like a curiosity, a half-wild pet, a furtive secret. Like Pip helping the convict Magwitch in Great Expectations, he sneaks him water and bread - and in doing so, discovers that his own father is one of the gang who have kidnapped the boy and are demanding a ransom from his rich Milanese papa. Salvatores builds up the tension in Michele's head to an unbearable degree. The plucking of pizzicato strings and the cawing of rooks become leitmotifs of alarm as the boy frantically pedals his bike across the suddenly frightening fields. Passing cars resemble enemy militia. A nasty fat guy in a neck brace threatens to feed him to the pigs. There's a marvellous scene, just after Michele has had the fright of his life, when he looks for his mother in a crowd, and the camera's point-of-view settles distractedly on random details - on shoes, a radio, people's hair - everyday things that have suddenly lost all meaning.

You might expect the film to become an adventure - The Secret Two against the Kidnappers - but that would seriously underestimate Salvatores. Instead he offers a moral conundrum: how can the boy look at his mother's delighted face, as she dreams of how they'll spend their share of the money ("We'll go to the seaside. We'll eat mussels... in a restaurant!") and not be on their side? In this wonderfully even-handed movie, the bad guys are by no means all bad. The father, with his cigarette holder and his charm, is a calming force at home in the face of his wife's neurotic strictness. Even Sergio, the toad-like gang boss from Milan (Diego Abatantuono) has a human side. When he shares a bedroom with Michele and can't sleep in the heat, we fear the worst; but all he does is show the kid his family snaps.

Best of all is the developing relationship between the two boys, as they discover they're not so different, go rolling in the corn, lie side by side like lovers, and Michele finally resolves to save his new friend. The script (co-written by Niccolo Ammaniti from his novel) is full of assumed identities ("I am the Lizard Man"; "Are you my Guardian Angel?"); behind the kidnap drama and its outcome, there's a deeply touching secondary theme of looking into the darkness and seeing things clearly, of becoming yourself, emerging out of sunlit innocence into the mud and roots of maturity.

The director's visual poetry is faultless. Watch how the camera leaves young Filippo's face - his eyes shut against the light - and cuts to Michele riding his bike ecstatically with his eyes closed, seeing how it might feel. He extends his arms like a bird - and overhead a real hawk hovers, promising the fun is soon going to change to trouble. The boys' tumbling in the cornfield is echoed by a vicious fight among the grown-ups when one of the gang rolls on the floor with Michele's mother, and things start to come apart. Moral imperatives appear like the combine harvesters on the August horizon. "Why did you put him in the dungeon?" Michele finally asks his father, and the camera closes in accusingly on this weak and greedy man's sweating face. You can feel the hairs on your neck prickle at the hint that innocence and goodness may triumph in this curious battle, but you can't be sure what the outcome will be... When it comes, it's a terrible shock; but it leads to a uniquely satisfying conclusion. The final tableau - involving a helicopter, two men, the two boys and the blowing stalks of the recently harvested corn - has the chiaroscuro simplicity of a Caravaggio painting.

I urge you to see I'm Not Scared. It's rare to find a film whose every frame is so indelibly stamped with the director's visual fingerprints, whose thematic images are so coherent, whose characters are so subtly drawn and whose narrative handling is so fresh and absorbing. Even the soundtrack is a constantly inventive treat. This is a work of high cinematic art. It's the best foreign film I've seen since City of God.

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