A nature poem set amidst waves of burnt cornstalks in rural southern Italy, I’m Not Scared belongs to the same species of film as To Kill a Mockingbird or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return: they are movies about children that aren’t for children. As with the 1962 Mockingbird, I’m Not Scared explores the fragile realm of childhood games and stories, of how children invent fantastic tales in order to define the unknown.
The director Gabriele Salvatores and his cinematographer Italo Petriccione create a palpable sense of place in canvases of golden brown fields, parched summer landscapes dotted with the color of intermittent wildflowers. Songs of cicadas and crows fill in silent spaces, and when the wind rustles through tree limbs or drops of sudden rain send black ants scurrying, we can practically feel the sensations, too.
It’s an idyllic setting. Children race on their bikes under the hot eye of heaven; the sharp harmonics of a string orchestra bow across the soundtrack. The filmmakers understand that a child’s world is an epic one. The music, an original score by Ezio Bosso and Pepo Scherman that blends seamlessly into and out of a Vivaldi Violin Concerto, couldn’t be better accompaniment for the movie’s adept intermingling of the larger-than-life with the intimate, of light and dark, of playful innocence and sudden, out of nowhere jolts.
The young actor Giuseppe Cristiano, who plays the movie’s 10-year-old hero Michele, has terrific presence. He’s open and natural, and there isn’t a note in his actions or timing that rings false. Michele is a young dreamer; when searching the grounds of his companions’ hideout for a lost pair of eyeglasses, he discovers a mat partially obscured by foliage, and before pulling the cover back, he says aloud, “A cave filled with gold and gems.” Peering down into the dark shaft, he instead spies—a human foot.
Frightened, Michele flees the spot, yet to it he returns compulsively. Inside this hole in the earth, wrapped in a coarse, gray blanket, dwells a small figure whose shape resembles one of the demonic hooded murderers from Don’t Look Now and who speaks in a strained whisper similar to the voice of the soothsayer from Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. “Are you a child?” Michele asks with such an innocent face that the question takes on, somehow, significance seemingly out of proportion to its simplicity. In extraordinarily beautiful sequences, the hesitation and fear yield to conversations between the two. In these scenes between a “pure” child of unfettered innocence and one of deformed spirit, laughter and horror co-exist.
There are a couple of minor missteps near the end, neither of which seriously tarnishes the film, and I shall pass over them in silence. Let me draw your attention to the fine performances of Mattia Di Pierro as Filippo and Giulia Matturro as Michele’s younger sister Maria. Di Pierro, making his debut, rises to the role’s physical and psychological demands. Filippo undergoes shifts more drastic than anyone else: Di Pierro renders these with modesty and believability. Matturro introduces herself as an innate comedienne. Her moments of child’s play lend the movie some of its giddiest imagery. She submerges her Barbie doll in a shallow pond, and the Barbie floats along, Ophelia-like, her stiff, blond, plastic hair fanned out in all directions. Later, Maria, who wears an oversized pair of glasses meant for an adult, carries the doll by its hair. When the other children have been playing in the fields without her and they approach home again, Maria suddenly materializes all on her own in the next frame, a wide composition in which she appears as a little ghost cradling a wedge of watermelon. — NPT
April 11, 2004