By Steven G. Kellman
I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura) begins much the way that Emanuele Crialese's 2002 film Respiro begins. At an abandoned building in an isolated stretch of rural southern Italy, several children bully and abuse one another. So much for the expectations of innocence. Where are the adults? What kind of people are they?
In the case of I'm Not Scared, adapted by Gabriele Salvatores from a Niccoló Ammaniti novel, the answers come slowly. This is a pensive thriller about - though not for - children, and it takes awhile for 10-year-old Michele (Cristiano) to understand the grownups who define his world. Michele lives in a rustic realm that only seems idyllic. A title at the outset informs us that the date is 1978, and, though the association remains unmentioned, an Italian audience might recall that that was the year in which Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and assassinated.
Michele lives with his parents and his younger sister amid a cluster of decrepit houses at the margin of a vast expanse of wheat. His father, a truck driver, is often gone, but when Pino (Abbrescia) is home he is both tender and tough with his son, challenging him to arm-wrestle and chiding him for signs of incipient sissiness. Michele's mother, Anna (Sanchez-Gijón), is a sexy scold who is very much in love with her husband, but feels trapped in the life he controls. Michele himself never feels so much at ease as when he is bicycling alone through empty amber fields.
The captive boy, Filippo (Di Pierro), has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom from his wealthy parents. Without condescending to its juvenile characters or to the audience, I'm Not Scared traces the growth of moral awareness in a child who senses that his parents have been doing wrong. Despite the chasm of class that separates them, Michele musters the courage and the empathy to bond with Filippo and risk retribution from the only adults he knows.
Director Salvatores, who is best known for the 1991 Mediterraneo, has made a coming-of-age film that respects the maturity of its viewers and the complexity of its characters. From its opening images of broken glasses and a tortured bird to its powerful final frames, this is an irresistible child's-eye peek at ethical choices and their consequences. I'm not afraid to admit that I was moved. •