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'I'm Not Scared'

"I'm Not Scared," as beautiful as it is disturbing, is an acutely perceptive study of character, as revealed in relations between children and especially between children and adults. At the same time it is a notably edgy suspense drama, based on a prize-winning novel by Niccolò Ammaniti. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores with the utmost subtlety and naturalness, it is quite a distance from Salvatores' 1991 World War II comedy "Mediterraneo," which might well be the lightest-weight movie ever to win an Oscar for best foreign-language film.

Not far from a remote village in southern Italy, its handful of children are playing in the ruins of a stone villa set amid endless wheat fields. One boy emerges as the natural leader of the group's games and is exacting a humiliating penalty from a plump girl when another boy steps forward to take her place. He is given a different but far more dangerous challenge. Right away, Giuseppe Cristiano's 10-year-old Michele shows he's not scared.

This sequence has been staged with such ease that it's only in retrospect that it becomes clear how closely it foreshadows not merely how Michele will subsequently conduct himself but also how the adults in his life will behave. As it happens, Michele and his little sister Maria (Giulia Matturo) are almost home when she realizes that she's left her glasses back at the villa ruins. Michele rushes back, pokes around, locates them and in the process discovers a trapdoor in the ground in front of the villa. He carefully opens it, peering into a dank earthen bunker.

What Michele finds packs a real jolt, and it plunges him into a dilemma that he cannot ignore but feels compelled to keep secret. He knows he should tell his parents but doubts they would believe him. Just as certainly, he instinctively doesn't want to add to their hardships. His father Pino (Dino Abbrescia) is often absent in his search for work, and his mother Anna (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is hard-pressed to keep the household running. The family lives in one of the village's crumbling buildings, and has a TV and a radio and enough food to put on the table. But poverty hangs over the community, its seediness a contrast to the beauty of the open spaces that surround it. In a wholly implicit manner, poverty will become a prime mover in the drama that gradually, inexorably will engulf Michele and his family.

Salvatores skillfully builds tension between the urgent, dangerous nature of what Michele has discovered and the family's daily existence, its routines uninterrupted. Then, another shocking revelation surfaces, again in a most natural manner, and the urgency surrounding Michele's discovery escalates.

Sánchez-Gijón's Anna is a strong, loving mother who senses her son's intelligence, while her husband is a more macho type, but loving in his way. Cristiano is remarkable in expressing Michele's attempt to assimilate the harrowing discoveries that constitute a brutal loss of innocence.

"I'm Not Scared" concludes with one of those emotion-charged physical gestures that Italians, in their warmth and spontaneity, seem better able to get away with than anyone else. With a graceful confidence Salvatores has made a movie in which good and evil flow into each other as easily as day and night.


'I'm Not Scared'

MPAA rating: R, for disturbing images and for language

Times guidelines: Way too intense for children

Giuseppe Cristiano...Michele

Mattia Di Pierro...Filippo

Aitana Sánchez-Gijón...Anna

Dino Abbrescia...Pino

Giulia Matturro...Maria

A Miramax Films release of a Colorado Film and Cattleya presentation of an Italo-Hispano-British co-production: Colorado Film Production - Cattleya, Alquimia Cinema, the Producers (Not Scared) Ltd. In collaboration with Medusa Film. Director Gabriele Salvatores. Producers Maurizio Totti, Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini & Marco Chimenz. Executive producer Maurizio Tozzi. Screenplay by Niccolò Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano; based on Ammaniti's novel. Cinematogreapher Italo Petriccione. Editor Massimo Fiocchi. Music Pepo Scherman & Ezio Bosso. Costumes Patrizia Chericoni & Florence Emir. Production designer Giancarlo Basili. In Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

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