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While playing outside one day, nine-year-old Michele discovers Filippo, who is chained to the ground at the bottom of a hole. Michele witnesses town baddie Felice nearby and suspects something bad is happening. Michele is unsure whom he should tell about his discovery, eventually spilling the beans to his closest friend. Written by
I have been critical of films that sidestep issues of conscience for broader appeal, so when a film comes along that tackles the issue head on, it is important to take notice. Set in Southern Italy in 1978, I'm Not Scared by Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo) is about a child who discovers a small lad hidden in a cavernous hole near an abandoned farmhouse and acts with courage and compassion to "do the right thing". The film is partly a standard commercial product with a predictable plot, sentimental music, and pseudo-lyrical slow motion shots but it also embodies an artistic sensibility that expressively captures the world of a child in its wonder, innocence, and beauty. Similar to the 1996 film La Promesse by the Dardenne Brothers, it is a film about a young boy's awakening of conscience.
Ten-year old Michele, exquisitely performed by first-time actor Giuseppe Cristiano, is outgoing, intelligent, and strong-willed and there is a great deal of warmth and knowing in his face that makes us instinctively care about him. Michele and his friends play in the vast golden wheat fields during summer and all seems idyllic. When Michele looks for a pair of glasses lost by his sister Maria (Giulia Matturo), however, he makes an unexpected discovery. Beneath a straw-covered plank in the ground he finds Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), a scared, dirty, and almost blind boy of his own age. The child, chained to a stake and barely alive, is subject to hallucinations and believes that he is dead and that Michele is his guardian angel. We don't know if the boy is a "wild child" or the victim of an unspeakable crime. Instead of reporting his finding to his overburdened mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), or his moody working class father (Dino Abbrescia), he keeps the secret to himself, bringing bread and water to the starving boy and the two develop a mystical bond of friendship.
When Michele finds out the shocking reason that Filippo is in the cave, he discovers the strength within himself to stand up for what he thinks is right even though it leaves him open to potentially damaging consequences. I'm Not Scared does not idealize children and paint all adults as evil. The children can be ruthless in cruelly teasing the weakest members of their group and in selling out to the wrongdoers for trifles, for example, just to sit at the wheel of a car. The adults commit a heinous crime out of the desperation of poverty or for unstated political reasons but their love for their own children is clear. Based on a novel by Niccoló Amminiti, I'm Not Scared is part suspense drama and part coming-of-age story but cannot be neatly categorized. It is has a strange otherworldly and mythical quality to it, like a cinematic dream and the result is not vacuously uplifting but powerfully moving. In discovering the cave where Filippo is hidden, Michele truly discovers a cave "filled with gems and gold".
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