I’m Not Scared (Io non ho paura)

The most interesting question to come under consideration in the very interesting Italian film I’m Not Scared (Io non ho paura) is this: where does the moral sense of its boy hero, Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) come from? What leads him, when he comes from such a close-knit family and community, suddenly to identify himself with an outsider to the point where he must destroy his own family? I should not have been disappointed that these questions remained unanswered — probably they must always remain unanswered — but I did allow myself a degree of disappointment that they were hardly even explored.

Michele is playing with his little sister (Giulia Matturo) and a gang of other children in a southern Italian wheatfield near his home one day when he becomes separated from the group and discovers a subterranean chamber crudely covered with corrugated sheet metal which, he imagines, might contain a treasure. Instead, he is shocked to discover that it contains a boy, Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro) of about his own age. Prevented by chance from informing his parents of his discovery when he naturally assumes that they will want to go to the boy’s aid, he quickly comes to realize that his father (Dino Abbrescia), is part of the rather inept criminal gang that has kidnapped him — or that is keeping him in the remote and rural south for the actual kidnappers in northern Italy.

The director, the Neapolitan Gabriele Salvatores, working from a screenplay adapted by Niccolb Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano from Ammaniti’s novel, is careful to show us at the beginning that Michele is morally precocious. When the nasty little leader of their gang tries to make a female playmate pay a forfeit by taking down her shorts, Michele intervenes by offering to pay the forfeit in her stead and has to walk across the open beams of a ruined building. The dream-imagery of walking above a fearful drop into an abyss, like the hole in which Filippo is being kept, is repeated here and elsewhere, which may help us to understand the readiness of Michele to identify himself with the helpless Filippo rather than his own father.

Also pushing him away from the family and towards the other boy is the Brazilian gang leader whom he doesn’t like and who sleeps in his room. He is naturally alarmed to find that the man carries a gun and that he seems to have power over his father. But these are not in themselves, or would not be for most children, reason enough to put his own family members in danger for the sake of a stranger. The father himself, though rough in an Italian peasant’s sort of way and capable of frightening outbursts of anger, is no monster and obviously has a great deal of real affection for Michele and his sister. What, to a child, is having a criminal parent compared with such a consideration as this? In a moment of petulance after he has been scolded he shouts: “I’m not their son anymore,” but why should these mean anything more than it would from any other sulky child.

Michele is obviously not as other children are, but we are not told what inner resource makes his moral compass so unerring that he never doubts his loyalties are with the boy in the hole rather than his parents — or maybe even his whole community. I think Salvatores toys with the idea of crediting TV — perhaps just to be provocative. When Michele sees what he instantly recognizes as Filippo’s distraught parents on television, appealing for his safety from Milan, he must find it easier to sympathize with them as opposed to his own parents. But this explanation is not insisted upon, and we are left to suppose that it must have been something much more elemental: an instant of sympathetic electricity that bonds the two boys in spite of all that the world requires of them. This plus the beautiful and atmospheric photography of the Italian countryside by Italo Petriccione makes the film a memorable parable of innocence and experience and well worth seeing.

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