Io non ho paura (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Children are imaginative, courageous, and observant. And they are scared for good reasons.

Io Non Ho Paura (i'm Not Scared)

Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Cast: Guiseppe Cristiano, Mattia Di Pierro, Dino Abbrescia, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Miramax
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2004-04-09 (Limited release)

Children are running. The day is bright, the field where they scamper is golden. Accompanied by a speedy 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. This means that he loses the race -- for it is a race, not a flight from danger -- and so must pay up, that is, he must perform a feat of daring, named by the contest winner.

Michele agrees -- or rather, submits -- walking across a rickety rafter in the abandoned farmhouse where the children spend their summer afternoons. 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." Michele 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.

Michele's self-narration -- in 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). 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 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. Both children scream and fall back: cut to a shot of Michele on his bicycle, pedaling furiously away from the farmhouse. Gradually, Michele's curiosity gets the better of him; he returns again to the pit. "Are you alive?" he asks of the limp 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.

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.

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