It’s summer in the harsh plains of Southern Italy, where a brutal sun beats down on endless corn fields. Children from the village ride their rickety bikes into the wide golden expanse, inventing daredevil games to while away the lazy afternoons.
Thus begins “I’m Not Scared,” looking for all the world like another feel-good movie with nice music, lush cinematography and adorable Italian kids.
But then this new effort from Gabriele Salvatores, who directed the enchanting “Mediterraneo” a decade ago, takes a sudden dark swerve.
As 10-year-old Michele hunts for his sister’s fallen eyeglasses, he stumbles onto a piece of rusted metal and discovers underneath it a squalid hidden pit. Peering down into the darkness, he sees a dirty foot lying under a filthy blanket. Is it a dead body? He looks away, then looks again: the foot has moved. The body is alive.
For Michele, as with most kids, curiosity trumps fear. On his next try, he discovers that the foot belongs to a frightened little boy, chained to the ground, so disoriented that he believes he is dead.
“Mediterraneo,” Salvatores' 1991 film that won the best foreign film Oscar, was a funny and lighthearted romp about a sorry group of Italian soldiers sent to invade a remote Greek island during World War II. “I’m Not Scared” is quite different: part thriller, part coming-of-age drama, it touches on one of life’s baser instincts: greed.
Italy in the 1970s was plagued by a spate of child kidnappings for ransom. Novelist Nicolo Ammaniti, who grew up against that chilling backdrop, used it as the basis for a prize-winning novel, also titled “I’m Not Scared,” that he later adapted into a screenplay (co-written by Francesca Marciano.)
Salvatores made his film in the underdeveloped but beautiful regions of Basilicata and Puglia. For the children, he used only local, first-time actors, which gives the film a wonderfully natural feel from the start. Giuseppe Cristiano, who plays Michele, has a lovely, expressive manner that never falls into the haminess that can plague young actors.
The movie follows Michele’s gradual discovery of a sinister plot hatched by the adults in his life. Bringing the young captive food one day, he discovers a pot that matches one from his own kitchen, down to the scratches. What can it mean? He takes to imagining that the boy was his own unwanted twin.
The sad truth comes on the evening news. Michele discovers that his parents and their friends in the impoverished village are participants in a notorious kidnapping. He hears the child’s anguished mother plead on television for her son’s safety. Now that he knows the truth, he must decide what to do with it.
At this point, the film could veer into movie-of-the-week style melodrama, but it doesn’t. The adult characters, neither all bad nor certainly all good, are too complex for that. For one thing, there’s Michele’s sad, strained but loving mother, Anna, played by the beautiful Aitana Sanchez-Gijon (and resembling a young Isabella Rossellini.) Anna knows full well about the kidnapping but is not strong enough to protest.
And then there is Pino, Michele’s father (Dino Abbrescia), a sleazy, often unpleasant man who may not be a very good man or a very good dad — the only activity he can think to share with his son is arm-wrestling — but clearly loves his son.
The fact that Michele can continue to share this love until the end, even given his knowledge of his dad’s misdeeds, is only one reason the viewer is more likely than not to leave the theater wiping away a tear or two.