Gabriele Salvatores, 2003, Italy/Spain/United Kingdom, 101 mins, subtitles
Giuseppe Cristiano, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Dino Abbrescia, Mattia Di Pierro, Giorgio Careccia, Diego Abatantuono
Gabriele Salvatores, probably best known for his Oscar-winning film Mediterraneo (1992), likes to play around with genre conventions, "melting classical elements of a specific genre with others which don't belong to it." Co-scripted by Niccolo Ammaniti, author of the original prize-winning 2001 best-selling novel, Salvatores' latest film, I'm Not Scared, could be described as a 'coming of age'-family drama-horror-thriller. This, however, would slight the overall impact and perfectly toned judgment of the film, which beautifully blends the story of the end of childhood with an easy paced but extremely gripping thriller.
Set in a remote dusty village in Southern Italy during the scorching summer of 1978, ten-year-old Michele (brilliantly and convincingly played by newcomer Cristiano) and his friends come across an abandoned, rundown farmhouse when playing in the surrounding wheat fields. Returning to find his sister's lost glasses he discovers a pit covered with a sheet of corrugated iron. Deciding to look inside he sees a grubby foot sticking out from underneath a blanket. When the foot moves, he runs away. Although shouted at by his mother (Sanchez-Gijon) for being late and delighted to find that his father (Abbrescia) has returned home from working abroad, Michele cannot stop thinking about the thing in the pit. The next day he goes to the farmhouse alone to look into the hole again. He sees a ragged, filthy, blind boy chained to the floor, reaching up towards him. Terrified, Michele screams and rides away on his bike as fast as he can. He plucks up the courage to go back and continues to visit the boy. He brings him water and food, and attempts to find out who he is. Somebody has incarcerated the boy, called Filipo (Di Pierro), and as Michele investigates who is responsible he begins to become suspicious of everybody in his village, including his own parents.
With a beautiful stringed score from Pepo Scherman and Ezio Bosso, the violins fill the scenes where the children are running through the tall wheat fields with a mixture of joy and melancholy, as if the film is yearning for these happy childhood memories. Italo Petriccione's stunning cinematography zooms through the fields at a child's height to confirm that the story is being told from their point of view. Along with Petriccione's stunning panoramic shots of the Italian countryside in the midst of the blazing summer heat, and Mauro Lazzaro's sound mixing of the birds and the incessant noise of insects buzzing and chirping which completely surrounds us, the film really encapsulates the sensation of a scorching Mediterranean heat wave. With scenes filled with sweaty siestas, sticky uncomfortable nights, and dusty dry track roads, this film will make the viewer long for a cold drink and a smearing of factor 8. This atmosphere of oppressive heat and the brightness of the fields contrast strongly with the darkness of Filipo's makeshift cave. The menace of the darker scenes moves to Michele's own house as the film and the suspicions deepen.
Like other films about the painful and confusing step into adolescence such as The Night of the Hunter (1955), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and Stand By Me (1986), Salvatores' I'm Not Scared represents the end of childhood innocence as a time of terrible secrets, confusion, danger and nightmares, in which nobody, not even friends or parents, can be trusted. As with all children on the verge of entering teen-age, Michele's parents constantly telling him that he is too young to understand anything, frustrates and alienates him. There are plenty of scenes filled with gruesome details (Filipo attempting to open his puffy, crusted eyes to the light is particularly stomach churning) and some heart-stopping frights (Michele's first forays into the bunker produced a wonderful Mexican wave of shock in the audience). The film portrays the fragility of this stage in life as being a moment of terror, in which your worst fears must be confronted head on. At times scary, suspenseful, and shocking, and at others funny, moving, and sad, I'm Not Scared is a wonderful film that does not fail to affect the viewer.