Miramax is marketing I’m Not Scared as if it were a thriller or a horror story. That seems self-defeating, since the film is decidedly not a thriller and thriller fans expecting taut suspense or hair-raising creepiness will be disappointed. On the other hand, that same advertising might dissuade attendance by audiences who will enjoy a perceptive, sensitive, and observant film–one of the best to come out of Italy in years.
I’m Not Scared takes place in 1978 in rural southern Italy. Were it not for the presence of a television set, the time could as easily be half a century earlier. In a village so small that clothes are bought from an itinerant peddler, a group of children play together, bicycling and running through rolling fields of golden grain. The events are seen through the eyes of Michele (Giuseppe Christiano), an intelligent, energetic ten-year-old who might be called street-smart, if there were any streets to be seen.
By chance, Michele discovers what seems to be a "wild child," a filthy, seemingly blind boy, shackled and held prisoner in a covered pit by an abandoned old house. Bit by bit, Michele connects with the boy and, concurrently, learns from separate events why the boy is there. To offer more plot than that might spoil some of the pleasure afforded by the narrative skill with which director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo) delivers the effective screenplay, based on a novel by Niccol� Ammaniti.
But I’m Not Scared, while grounded in a strong plot, achieves its resonance through an accrual of incidents which illuminate the character of Michele, poised as he is near the end of childhood, on the cusp of manhood. The ambivalent relationship between father and son, precariously balancing love and competition, respect and questioning, dependence and independence, plays out naturally as the plot develops.
A less skilled writer would have made this kind of coming-of-age story a flat contrast between childlike innocence and adult cynicism, but this script doesn’t settle for oversimplification, nor does it slip into the sort of sentimentalism that too often mars stories about children. An early scene among Michele and his friends demonstrates the cruelty of which children (not just adults) are capable and, at the same time, establishes the fundamental decency of which Michele is possessed, revealing in his character the traits that will underlie his motivation in the events yet to transpire.
Michele has a vivid imagination, a rich fantasy-life that Salvatores manages to convey from the inside out. The boy writes a journal using a flashlight under the bedcovers, using his imagination to speculate about the mysteries of things he doesn’t know or understand. In a nighttime scene near the climax of the film, Michele, riding his bike through the dark, recites a poem, an incantation against the frightening creatures of the night, creatures shown as Michele speeds by. A small moment, carefully underplayed and perceptively telling.
None of the other characters is developed in depth, but all are sketched in skillfully with deft use of small incidents and natural performances. The children, in particular, are personalized and differentiated–from Michele’s little sister, Maria (Giulia Matturo), a little charmer in big glasses, of whom Michele is lovingly protective, to Anna (Adriana Conserva), the fat girl who loses the bike races, to the "wild boy" himself, expertly played by Mattia Di Pierro. The children are all played by first-time actors drawn from the region is which the film takes place. Giuseppe Christiano’s screen presence as Michele is charismatic–surely a new star is born here. The fine original score by Pepo Scherman and Ezio Bosso significantly enhances mood and atmosphere without being intrusive.
I’m Not Scareddoesn’t have a single car chase. There are no bombs or spies or detectives or crime labs. But it does rivet attention to its expertly woven storyline with appealing and believable characters about whose fate it is impossible not to care.