Gianni Amelio’s “The Stolen Children” is a powerful vision of a humanly rich but socially impoverished country, likely to earn a special niche in Italian film history. This small gem of a picture has a capacity to communicate profoundly, without cliches, to selected audiences; in its exclusive engagement in Rome, pic has attracted steady interest, and may do even better abroad.
The family drama is sketched in a quick, chilling opener seen through the morose eyes of 9-year-old Luciano. He knows his mother, a Sicilian-born slum-dweller in Milan, has been quietly prostituting his 11-year-old sister Rosetta for years.
When the police turn up, it is clear the silent little boy has been the informer, as the cops rush everyone away in squad cars.
Amelio next introduces young carabiniere Enrico Lo Verso, one of the most stalwart, moral heroes to be seen in an Italian film in decades.
Dumped by his partner, Lo Verso is strapped with transporting the two kids to an orphanage in Bologna. The girl is rebellious, a potential runaway; the boy is asthmatic and locked in mute melancholy.
When the orphanage refuses to take Rosetta, he is forced on a journey that leads all three characters into a bittersweet friendship and a clash of well-intentioned people against callous institutions. The finale is unexpected, understated and wrenching.
Amelio makes use of understatement, simplicity and significant detail to bring home his point without belaboring the obvious. (For example, the horrible truth about Rosetta’s client dawns in a closeup of two hands.)
“Il Ladro di Bambini” returns to devices used by post-war neorealism (non-pro actors, heavy location work) to obtain scenes that ring desolately true. The title even suggests Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic “Il Ladro di Biciclette” (The Bicycle Thief), which also showed an adult’s humiliation through a child’s eyes.
But Amelio’s aversion to easy emotion and the care for detail and close-up with which he constructs “unposed” images links him more to the supreme cinematic simplicity of Roberto Rossellini. This is a “Viaggio in Italia” for the ’90s.
The story–which Amelio co-wrote with Stefano Rulli and Sandro Petraglia, the young writing duo known for their treatment of social themes–is nothing more than a burgeoning friendship on the road, leading from Milan and Bologna to Rome and the Calabrian hinterlands, and finally across the straits into Sicily.
As the ice slowly melts between the officer and the two kids and a deep rapport develops, Amelio is careful to avoid easy heart-tugging. The payoff is much larger (though the audience may be much smaller).
Instead of milking sentimentality, picture keeps veering off to take a deeper look into Italy’s hidden social malaise. Film peaks when private and public ills complement each other.
An episode at Lo Verso’s sister’s home on the Calabrian coast, where stunning nature has been destroyed by construction by the public administration, brilliantly interlocks a nauseating public tragedy with the private humiliation of Rosetta.
The child actors (Valentina Scalici and Giuseppe Ieracitano) give extraordinarily convincing perfs. Yet neither had any previous brush with show business, nor were they allowed to read the film’s script before (or after) shooting.
Yet their gentle, half-knowing expressions are as effective as Garbo’s blankness at the end of “Queen Cristina”–the meaning is for the viewer to supply.
The same naturalness and spontaneity spark actor Lo Verso’s slow-burning fire as the public servant undone by his old-fashioned idealism. Under Amelio’s iron-hand direction, the three make a memorable, moving ensemble.
Two of Italy’s major cinematographers, Renato Tafuri and Tonino Nardi, plumb the characters’ depths in color images so rigorous but unpretentious they leave a retroactive impression of being black and white.
Production designer Andrea Crisanti creates a series of icy corridors–from police stations to orphanages and train stations — that visually sum up pic’s condemnation of institutional cruelty.
Music is an eclectic mood mix usually hitting the target (like Franco Piersanti’s vaguely Arab-sounding theme) but occasionally stepping a little too far forwardwith familiar songs.