Children are running. The sun is bright, the field where they scamper is golden and vast. Accompanied by an increasingly speedy and complex violin track, the camera barely keeps up as the kids hurtle forward, their bare legs dark amid the sunburned cast of the grasses. Maria (Giulia Matturo), younger and smaller than her fellows, stumbles, and her older brother, nine-year-old Michele (Guiseppe Cristiano) goes back to fetch her, the camera low and just behind him, his red shirt electric against the sharp blue sky. He gathers her up and takes her hand, together they catch up with the other children, now gathered at an abandoned farmhouse, claimed by the bully of the group. “Finders keepers,” he announces, his legs swinging as he sits on rock and puffs his chest.
Michele and the others are afraid of the bully, in the way that children are of one another—not quite contemplating dire results of disobedience, but more abstract awfulness. As Michele has lost the race, he fears he will have to “pay up,” but this time, as usual, the older boy picks on the easiest target, an overweight girl whose hands tremble as she agrees to pay, by taking down her pants. Michele stands up for her, taking the punishment as, suddenly, he recognizes in himself a kind of courage.
The feat of daring Michele is called on to perform is boyish, certainly, but also unnerving. He agrees—or rather, submits—to walking across a rickety rafter in the farmhouse. Just when he seems about to fall, he regathers himself, reciting to himself a tale of courage that he has conjured himself, about an agile “Lizard Man” who, on teetering, becomes “the Glass Man, because, if he falls, he breaks.” Though asked to speak louder, he refuses: it’s his own story, his own sustenance. And with it, he does not fall or break. Indeed, he goes on to demonstrate a bravery that is at once unusual for its moral sensibility, but also typical of children who have not yet learned to fear what the world has to offer. Michele’s story becomes increasingly complicated. It is not enough to say that he loses innocence by exposure to bad behavior and obvious selfishness, though this is surely true. He also loses faith in the adults who are supposed to look after him. His maturation is tragic.
Michele’s self-narration—most often taking the form of stories he tells himself at night, under his covers with a flashlight—punctuates Gabriele Salvatores’ Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared), now released on an extras-less DVD. “So they bury him and he remains in the belly of the earth,” he recites, “among secrets, corpses, bones, skeletons, and darkness.” A solemn, succinct consideration of the ways this child learns to interpret human motives, to make sense of events that appear to have no sense, the film is adapted by Niccolò Ammaniti from his novel. Set in the Basilicata and Puglia regions of southern Italy, it paints a portrait of inevitable disillusionment that is at once grim and romantic, broadly allegorical and all too real.
This adventure begins just after he and his playmates leave the farmhouse. Headed home, Maria discovers she has lost her glasses, whereupon her generous big brother runs back to retrieve them. On spotting the glasses, Michele discovers a terrible truth: a boy in a hole. More specifically, he catches a glimpse of a thin, pale leg beneath a blanket, barely visible at the bottom of a pit, covered over by a rudimentary metal panel. Horrified, Michele rushes home, in search of some sense of order. His mother Anna (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) prepares dinner, his often absent father Pino (Dino Abbrescia) appears at last, smoking with a cigarette holder and giving Michele a model gondola that is too fragile to play with.
Unable to forget the boy in the hole, Michele soon goes back. His first encounter with Filippo (Mattia di Pierro) is wholly alarming: as Michele peers into the darkness of the pit, suddenly the other boy’s face appears, seeming to mirror Michele’s own—indeed, he is the figure in Michele’s nighttime stories, the child lost among secrets and corpses. His returns to the hole are acutely framed—he rides his bike in bright sunlight, Filippo languishes in utter, frightening shadows. When they first look on one another, Michele screams, the other boy looks up, plaintive and weary; cut to another shot of Michele on his bicycle, pedaling furiously away from the farmhouse; cut to a shot of Michele flying over the camera in slow motion, as his bike hits a bump and he is flung from it violently.
It’s a daunting start for a friendship, but eventually, Michele’s curiosity gets the better of him. He returns again to the pit. “Are you alive?” he asks of the limp, peering form before him. “Agua,” comes back a weak voice. Michele lowers a pot of water on a rope, and in the days to come, returns with bread he buys at a local shop (this after imagining that a starving boy might want chocolate first). Blinded, chained by his leg, and desperately enfeebled by his weeks alone, in utter darkness, Filippo is simultaneously frightening and pathetic, absolutely vulnerable and stunningly resilient. He is the Lizard Man and the Glass Man, broken and in desperate need of rescue.
As they begin to talk, the boys learn they are the same age (in the fifth grade) and share interests in model cars and comic books, their evolving sense of interdependence and trust parallels Michele’s increasing distrust in his parents. For the most ghastly aspect of this story that becomes Michele’s is his realization that adults—in particular his parents, as well as his father’s unpleasant “business associate,” Sergio (Diego Abatantuono)—lie, steal, and abuse those who depend on them. As Michele tries to figure out how Filippo has come to be hidden in this hole, he also comes to see danger in his once-familiar surroundings.
Though the plot occasionally lurches into melodrama, Italo Petriccione’s striking cinematography and Massimo Fiocchi’s delicate editing provide nuance for Michele’s emotional and physical journeys. Most provocatively, Io non ho paura reveals the reasons children can’t help but be afraid, despite the efforts of most adults to protect them, to preserve their inexperience and trust for as long as possible. When Filippo asks Michele, “Are you my guardian angel?” the answer can only be, no. Children are not angels, only children. As such, they are imaginative, courageous, and observant. And they are scared for good reasons.