Stripped of whatever socio-political material may have been inherent in Niccolo Ammaniti source novel, the film adaptation of I’m Not Scaredwouldn’t be much more than a generic thriller. That is, were it not for director Gabrielle Salavatores’ uncanny ability to evoke an almost tangible sense of a childhood summer and the mystery and confusion that go hand in hand with being 10 years old.
While the story itself is intriguing, it’s also neither entirely effective, nor finally believable. Briefly, it follows the adventures of 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who happens upon a mysterious hole that’s been covered with corrugated metal. Looking into the opening, he spies what appears to be the foot of a dead person protruding from beneath a blanket. He runs away, telling no one of what he’s seen, but is so haunted by the image that he returns the following day to investigate further, discovering not a corpse but an apparently demented boy (Mattia Di Pierro) chained to the bottom of the pit.
Frightened, but fascinated, Michele starts trying to sort out why the boy might be chained there — ranging from his own wild imaginings to the slowly dawning truth. And ultimately, he realizes that the fate of the other child is in his hands. This is all fairly suspenseful in itself, and some of the imagery is downright unsettling; unfortunately, the plot finally erupts into a not wholly believable climax that manages to be both predictable and a shameless exercise in what might be called helicopter ex machina.
On its own merits as a story, the material could easily be that of a pretty standard-issue Hollywood thriller. So much so that it’s not hard to imagine the film playing at your local multiplex — were it not in Italian. Yet even as a cookie-cutter thriller, Scared would still have problems in the scripting department, owing to the excision of any underlying material that might explain how an entire village would go along with an elaborate — and yet poorly conceived — kidnapping scheme. There’s a sense that something is missing here — something strictly related to Italy in 1978 –which comes across as muddled to a foreign viewer.
For that matter, there’s a feeling that Salvatores’ depiction of being 10 has more in common with his own childhood — putting us at about 1960, not 1978. This isn’t necessarily a downside as it adds to Scared‘s sense of timelessness and also underscores the otherworldly isolation of the village. Still, it does seem a stretch in terms of reality, requiring a slight leap of credulity.
But it’s a leap worth making.
The muddled motivations of the film’s adult characters to one side, Scared scores — and even soars — when looking at the world through the eyes of its 10-year-old protagonist. In so doing, it captures something of the sense of what it was like to be that age. Michele isn’t a 10-year-old in the manner we usually encounter in movies; his perceptions of what the world is like have the mark of reality, not the mark of a screenwriter.
Salvatores allows us to fully inhabit the boy’s sun-drenched, glorious and often-mystifying world. He gives us that part of childhood where things are more intriguing — certainly more mysterious — than they seem to adult eyes. A wheat field isn’t a crop, but a marvelous thing to run through — and a perfect place to hide in simply by lying down. Thus, it’s transformed into a secret world that isn’t surprising to see destroyed by adults, once the wheat is harvested.
A crumbling old house becomes an enchanted playground of secrets and secrecy where anything might happen — and where something quite remarkable does happen, something that at once scares and fascinates Michele. Yet he is able to almost take the event in stride, since he always knew that in every corner lurks remarkable things (things that we, as adults, view as mundane). Yet this childhood world is slowly eroded from Michele’s view, as a more objective reality intrudes upon it.
In this regard, Scared is almost unique in cinema — depicting childhood from the perspective of a child without the distancing of a more adult point of view. There are intimations of this sort of thing in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, but even there it’s more the darker side of the imagination being explored through an adult’s acceptance of how serious the business of childhood is to a child. That trait is even more pervasive in Scared; the movie that actually comes closest to it for me is The Reflecting Skin, though that indie film is disturbing to the point of being horrific, and narrower than Salvatores’ movie in its aims.
I’m not sure there’s anything quite like I’m Not Scared. So even though its story line is sometimes wanting, this is a film that deserves to be seen — especially if you’ve let yourself forget what it felt like to be a child, back when the world still contained mystery around every new corner.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke