Given his predominant focus on grown-up questions of generational identity, utopian ideologies, disillusionment and escape, Gabriele Salvatores seems an odd match for Niccolo Ammaniti's bestseller "I'm Not Scared," one of the most vividly cinematic Italian novels of recent years.

Given his predominant focus on grown-up questions of generational identity, utopian ideologies, disillusionment and escape, Gabriele Salvatores seems an odd match for Niccolo Ammaniti’s bestseller “I’m Not Scared,” one of the most vividly cinematic Italian novels of recent years. Rather, the material seemed tailor-made for a director like Gianni Amelio, whose films often have explored father-son relationships or the conflicts between children and the harshly unfathomable adult world. But while another director might have imbued the story of a Sicilian boy awakened to his parents’ involvement in child abduction with more emotional weight and thematic depth, Salvatores’ classically illustrative treatment should open arthouse doors for the visually sumptuous production.

Ammaniti’s sensitive, richly evocative novel, which unfolds during the hottest summer on record in a Sicilian rural village in 1978, provides an uncommonly concrete narrative by the standards of contemporary Italian cinema, which more often revolves around introspective, emotional or intellectual concerns than stories with a beginning, middle and end.

In many ways, Salvatores’ film recalls Carlo Carlei’s “Flight of the Innocent,” which also centered on the kidnapping of a child. The 1992 feature suffered from visual and sentimental overkill, while in “I’m Not Scared,” the emotions struggle to emerge, less due to the director’s heavy investment in aesthetics than to his tendency to favor head over heart.

The sensation of a filmmaker working outside his natural register is compounded by a certain imitative feel for the work of Terrence Malick — particularly Malick’s “Days of Heaven” — most of all in Salvatores’ striving for metaphysical resonance via stunning landscapes and fauna shots that emphasize the majesty, malevolence and purity of the natural world against which the nefarious events take place.

Opening in a dank, cavernous hole in the ground, the camera pans up to reveal a parched Sicilian hillside drenched in blinding sun. After playing in a dilapidated house nearby, 9-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) discovers the poorly camouflaged hole and is alarmed to see the foot of a child protruding from under a rug down below.

Keeping the discovery secret from his friends as well as his mother (Aitana Sanchez Gijon) and father (Dino Abbrescia), Michele returns the next day and is startled by Filippo (Mattia Di Perro), a half-blind, delirious prisoner with the appearance of a feral boy, chained to the ground in the hole. Michele overcomes his initial fear and starts bringing the boy food and water.

Seeing village thug Felice (Giorgio Careccia) drive away, Michele begins to suspect some form of human misdeed. This is confirmed when he overhears the family’s gruff houseguest Sergio (Diego Abatantuono), his parents, Felice and another villager argue loudly one night before watching a TV news broadcast of a plea from Filippo’s well-heeled mother (Suzy Sanchez) for the safe return of her kidnapped son.

The drama’s most interesting aspect is its depiction of Michele’s inability to grasp a notion as complex as kidnapping for ransom, much less the suspected involvement of the parents he loves and trusts. The boy gets little help in comprehending all this from Filippo, too severely traumatized and confused to make much sense. Instead Michele dips into his own infantile fantasy life for explanations.

Michele eventually confides his secret to his best friend (Stefano Biase), but the friend informs Felice, prompting a violent family confrontation. Urged by his father to forget he ever saw Filippo, Michele is torn between obeying his parents and continuing to believe in their greater wisdom or facing his fears and intervening for justice like the comic-strip heroes he worships.

Salvatores orchestrates with assurance the suspenseful final stretch signaling the abrupt end of Michele’s boyhood innocence. But some of the subtextual nuances that distinguished Ammaniti’s novel — adapted by the author and Francesca Marciano — are diluted, most of all the delineation of the parallel, mutually uncomprehending worlds of adults and children.

While scenes between Michele and his clingy kid sister (Giulia Matturno) are tenderly observed, the power structure of their gang of friends becomes secondary, along with the cruelty and humiliation of childhood games and the magical element of darkness and danger. Nor does the sense fully emerge of the lonely village — more a cluster of humble houses — as a suffocating world prompting desperate bids for escape or betterment.

With little dialogue that explicitly verbalizes her conflict, Sanchez Gijon shapes a complex character from the loving mother pushed by circumstance into being a party to heinous crime. The Spanish thesp does a creditable job acting with a thick Sicilian accent.

Abbrescia also conveys multiple shadings of a stern, macho Sicilian wanting something more for his family, while Abatantuono erases his usual jovial Milanese persona to depict a morally repugnant man. Having worked only in passing with children in previous pics, Salvatores’ direction of the young cast generally is confident.

Rivaling the dazzling clarity and sun-scorched splendors of his work with the same director on “Mediterraneo,” d.p. Italo Petriccione’s fluid widescreen camera work soaks the magnificent landscapes and brooding skies in hot, searing light. But while the film is visually breathtaking, it smacks at times of excessively lacquered prettiness. Editing could be a little tighter, but Pepo Scherman and Ezio Bosso’s fretful, obsessive string score helps maintain a consistent thread of tension.

I'm Not Scared

Italy-Spain-U.K.

Production

A Medusa Film release (Italy) of a Colorado Film, Cattleya presentation of a Colorado Film, Cattleya (Italy)/Alquimia Cinema (Spain)/the Producers Films (Not Scared) (U.K.) production in association with Medusa Film. (International sales: Capitol Films, London.) Produced by Maurizio Totti, Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz. Executive producer, Totti. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores. Screenplay, Niccolo Ammaniti, Francesca Marciano, based on Ammaniti's novel.

Crew

Camera (Cinecitta color, Panalight widescreen), Italo Petriccione; editor, Massimo Fiocchi; music, Pepo Scherman, Ezio Bosso; production designer, Giancarlo Basili; costume designers, Patrizia Chericoni, Florence Emir; sound (Dolby Digital), Mauro Lazzaro; assistant director, Barbara Daniele; casting Fabio Scamoni, Fabiola Banzi. Reviewed at Medusa screening room, Rome, Feb. 3, 2003. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Anna - Aitana Sanchez Gijon Pino - Dino Abbrescia Felice - Giorgio Careccia Michele - Giuseppe Cristiano Filippo - Mattia Di Perro Sergio - Diego Abatantuono
With: Riccardo Zinna, Michele Vasca, Suzy Sanchez, Antonella Stefanucci, Adriana Conserva, Fabio Tetta, Giulia Matturno, Stefano Biase, Fabio Antonacci.

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