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Io non ho paura (I'm Not Scared)

(2004) *** R
101 min. Miramax. Director: Gabriele Salvatores. Cast: Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Dino Abbrescia, Giuseppe Cristiano, Diego Abatantuono, Riccardo Zinna.

With I'm Not Scared, Gabriele Salvatores contrasts the stereotypical images of Italian cinema--sun-dappled wheat-fields, breezy abandon, and tanned olive skin--with shadowy places both literal--like the dark hole which is the film's key setting--and figurative, in the souls of men, women, and children. Inspired by a real rash of threatening crimes in 1970s Italy, I'm Not Scared is a thriller that's not so much the "whodunit?" the trailers suggest as it is a "howwillitend?""

In the Puglia region of Southern Italy, ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) romps through the golden wheat fields and plays games with his friends and younger sister. The culture of competitive fun--races, dares, arm wrestling, drawing straws, "red light, green light"--bleeds into the world of adult maneuvers, which carry sinister consequences (Michele's penchant for scary stories takes on an air of clairvoyance when dark deeds begin to surface). When playing in a remote area, Michele stumbles on a horrible secret hidden beneath the surface of the countryside. Before the film ends, Michele and the perpetrators will have to reckon with the infamous crime.

Niccolò Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano adapted the screenplay from Ammaniti's novel; they and Salvatores show admirable restraint with the kind of story Hollywood filmmakers would dial up to eleven. Salvatores visually equates the children with insects: natural and free, ruthless but innocent, small and relatively powerless in a world of larger creatures. The larger creatures here are sinister adults who prove to be too close for comfort to the disoriented Michele. Though jaded Americans will expect Michele to know better than to allow the crime to go unmentioned for so long, his reticence to act goes to Salvatores' point. Michele is still an innocent unaccustomed to sharing with adult authority figures or seeing them as less than mythic figures in the storybook of his childhood.

I'm Not Scared fails to vault a couple of "plot holes," but its potent combination of thriller elements and coming-of-age drama works more effectively on a dreamy, lyrical level than a literal narrative one. The string-heavy score (which also quotes Vivaldi) adds to the baroque effect. Visually striking and exceptionally performed (by old and young alike), I'm Not Scared plucks the nerves.

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