The High Price of Ransom (Film Review: “I’m Not Scared”)

The Italian thriller, I’m Not Scared serves up a visually stunning landscape of one child’s bucolic summer and his harrowing journey of discovery from which there is no turning back.

SnapShot Plot

Set in an intensely pastoral and remote region of Southern Italy, I’m Not Scared is the story of what happens when a 10 year old boy makes a shocking discovery buried underground and finds himself torn between his own moral conscience and a loyalty and obedience to the perplexing adults in his small world. Released just over 10 years ago and directed with an exacting patience that allows the tension to simmer, the story takes place in the 70’s, when the plague of kidnappings in Italy would rival today’s crime rates in Mexico.

Young Michele is a decent boy who knows the difference between right and wrong. We see that in the opening scene of the film, when he and his gang of kids from a rural area in Italy’s poor South are running through a wheat field, racing to see who will make it first to an abandoned ruin – an old farmhouse or villetta – in the distance. When he hears the cries of his little sister, he immediately races back to help her, even though he knows it means he’s lost the race. When the bully of the gang inflicts a sexually shaming penalty to the overweight girl in the group for an infraction committed, Michele cannot stomach it and volunteers to take her place, agreeing to a dangerous dare. A short time later, when he returns to the crumbling scene alone, he sees something below the ground, deep within the recesses of a dark pit, the reality of which he can’t quite make out from above. When the camera captures a small, almost iridescent shape sticking out from a dirty blanket, the shock registered on Michele’s face is palpable as we realize that it’s a small human foot.

Over the course of the next several days, Michele tends to this trapped creature much like he would a feral animal he’s trying to tame, slowly yet surely learning, however, the true identity of the poor child who’s been kidnapped from a wealthy Milanese family and is being barely kept alive in a pit until ransom can be paid. Why doesn’t Michele immediately report his gruesome discovery to his tough mother, Anna (in a finely nuanced performance by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) or to the father he idolizes yet rarely sees? We must suspend our irritation over this breach of conduct in order to absorb the reality that eventually shatters Michele’s core values, putting himself and those he loves at just as much risk as the little boy in the hole.

Parting Shot

Thematically, in terms of one young boy putting himself at dire risk to save another young boy’s life, I’m Not Scared is probably most compared to the poignant Holocaust drama, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (itself based on a novel by the same name), but the comparison ends there. Directed by Gabriele Salvatores, whose unforgettable 1991 WWII film, Mediterraneo still resonates today, I’m Not Scared is based on the 2001 book by Italian author, Niccolò Ammaniti (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film). The novel was based on the actual kidnapping of a boy from Milan and held captive in Southern Italy. During the 70’s and early 80’s, an unprecedented number of kidnappings took place in the country, the most famous being the abduction and murder of Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade and the abduction of John Paul Getty III, whose ear was famously cut off and sent to his mother when his wealthy family refused to bargain with the kidnappers. This period is such a black mark on Italy’s recent past that it’s referred to as Gli Anni di Piombo (the years of lead), signalling the amount of bullets that were pumped into kidnap victims.

I’m Not Scared captures a time and place at once stunningly beautiful while at the same time brutal and impoverished. And the contrasts extend to the friction between the playful abandon of youth as it violently meets the sinister realities of the adult world. The bucolic majesty of the sun-drenched landscape which disguises the evil deed below the ground.

A word about the young Giuseppe Cristiano as Michele, who carries the entire picture on the expressive canvas of his little face. Everything we need to know about this boy, his world, his Southern Italian roots, his family life, his very moral core are transparently conjured in the eyes. And when he’s coaxing the kidnapped boy, Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro) out of the darkness or up from the pit, his voice and his beneficent smile could summon his namesake, Michael the Archangel.

Finally, a huge nod to Cinematographer, Italo Petriccione. He manages to capture such visceral images that the film seems to literally breathe. The transcendent beauty of the wheat fields moving like waves in the sea is mesmerizing, reminiscent of the same images captured in three vastly different but equally beautiful films to the eye, such as Peter Weir’s Amish masterpiece, Witness; the Taviani brothers’ Italian WWII epic, Night of the Shooting Stars; and Terrence Malick’s Depression-era gem about migrant share-croppers, Days of Heaven.

What I’m Not Scared may lack in exposition is more than made up in cinematic beauty and emotional truth, if you have the patience to simply let the film wash over you gently, and then not so gently.

I’m Not Scared is presently streaming on Netflix.

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