Being a kid is never easy, but consider being a ten-year-old kid and stumbling upon a horrendous situation, a situation out of your control, a situation totally beyond your range of understanding. Such is the fate of young Michele in the 2003 Italian import, "I'm Not Scared" ("Io non ho paura").
The screenplay was written by Niccolo Ammaniti, based on his novel, which in turn was based loosely on an actual incident. So there is more than an allegorical element of truth about the story. The movie was directed by Gabriele Salvatores, whose primary claim to fame was the film "Mediterraneo," an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 1992. "I'm Not Scared" has already been nominated for and won a number of mainly European awards, most notably for direction and cinematography.
Anyway, the story takes place in 1978 and concerns an Italian boy, Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who is out playing one day next to an old abandoned house in the country when he accidentally discovers a corrugated iron sheet covering a pit. Naturally inquisitive, the boy pulls aside the metal covering and peers into the hole, there to find a human leg sticking out of a blanket. Scared to look further, he hurriedly replaces the covering and runs home.
The next day he returns, and he finds it's a child down in the pit, a boy about Michele's own age, half starved and chained to a stake. Like other choices Michele has to make in the course of the story, his next decision is what to do next. He's naturally fearful of approaching the boy, who will not speak to him and appears dazed, mute, or insane.
Now, it's easy for us as adults or young adults watching all of this to say to ourselves, well, why doesn't he try to rescue the confined boy or just run and tell the authorities? Or why doesn't he at least tell his parents what's going on? But, remember, this is a boy in fifth grade with little understanding of the world outside his small, rural community. And he has an uneasy relationship with his mother and father, his father in particular. Besides, if Michele simply told his parents or the police about the kid in the pit, the movie would end, and where would the fun be in that?
Clearly, the film is meant to be a coming-of-age story, in this case a dramatic turning point in a boy's life that brings him face-to-face with the harsh realities of the adult world, realities young people would sometimes rather not face or acknowledge. Huck Finn had his river folk; Holden Caulfield had his New Yorkers; Michele has his dilemma with Filippo (Matia Di Pierro), the boy in the pit. Filippo believes he is dead and his pit is hell. Michele brings him food and water, but he does not offer to help him escape.
The story takes a while to develop, but then a second major occurrence happens that startles, confuses, and scares Michele as much as or more than finding young Filippo in the hole. Michele discovers to his horror that his own father may somehow be involved with the imprisoned boy! "Keep the kid hidden. Hide him and stay cool," he overhears one night.
Michele, like most youngsters, cannot comprehend that the adult world could be so evil, that his dad could be connected with anything so corrupt. Consequently, he shuts it all out. Or he tries to.
"I'm Not Scared" may not be a thriller or a shocker in the traditional sense, but it conveys a malevolence about the so-called normal world that is unsettling at best. What do you do if you're an innocent child and find out dark and looming wickedness exists in your very own backyard, possibly within your very own family?
Young Michele's predicament is punctuated by the irony of the story's setting and cinematography, the beauty and tranquility of the Southern Italian countryside contrasting with the horror story unfolding in its midst. The movie's ending may be contrived, and Michele's reactions may be a tad oversimplified. Yet the boy holds up remarkably well, considering he's in a terrifying situation in a slow but curiously mesmerizing motion picture.
The video image is among the best I've seen in recent years. The screen dimensions approximate the film's theatrical aspect ratio, measuring approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen HD set. The picture is anamorphic, enhanced for widescreen, and transferred to disc at a reasonably high bit rate. The low compression yields a video image that is clean and well defined. Colors are deep and solid, with good contrasts. The opening shots of the kids playing in fields of wheat and wild flowers are stunningly beautiful. While the hues are somewhat bright, they are still quite natural appearing, and facial tones remain realistic. Grain is a non issue, as are moiré effects, even the horizontal stripes on some of the children's shirts showing up without much shimmer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction does its job with a minimum of fuss, but do not expect anything dramatic. Except for a few crickets chirping, a few birds singing, and a helicopter flyover, it might as well be monaural. This, of course, is because probably ninety percent of the soundtrack is dialogue, which is rendered well in the center speaker. About the only time I noticed any front stereo spread was when a car went by from right to left. Not to worry; the midrange is well balanced, with some moderate frequency extremes, and everything is clear and easy on the ear.
There are practically no extra features on the disc. Eighteen scene selections help one to get around, and a couple of Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista titles are all there are. The original Italian language track is retained, with English and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Like many European films, "I'm Not Scared" moves along at a leisurely pace uncommon to most American films. I suppose Americans have, or at least are thought to have, short attention spans, thus forcing American filmmakers to pace their stories at a healthy clip. But "I'm Not Scared" takes its time unfolding, and it's all the more powerful and gripping for doing so. It's a fascinating, if frustrating, look at the relative lack of power and security and place a child has in our modern world. As such, it keeps our attention and feeds our worst anxieties.