Thrills Come with Unexpected Morality Tales in Salvatores’ “I’m Not Scared”
by Peter Brunette
What’s perhaps most noteworthy about Italian director Gabriele Salvatores‘ new film “I’m Not Scared” (now playing from Miramax) is that it succeeds on so many different levels. Most basically, it’s a thriller that always remembers to keep viewers’ minds wondering what’s coming next and their hearts beating fast. In addition, it’s a touching coming-of-age tale of a boy who has to negotiate the tricky, always fraught emotional terrain between him and his father while coping with his additional suspicions that his father may be a criminal capable of murder. Finally, it’s a brilliant exploration of the ambivalent place of human beings in a vibrant Nature that remains, as always, frustratingly value-free.
Though Salvatores has made a bunch of films in Italy since his 1991 “Mediterraneo” brought him to international attention, few if any have been released in the United States. “I’m Not Scared,” which is based on a powerful novel and screenplay by Niccolò Ammaniti, is a far more consequential endeavor than the earlier, lighthearted success for which he remains best known. This is another world entirely.
The new film is set in the south of Italy during the late 1970s, a time of increased kidnapping that kept well-to-do Italians, its principal victims, trembling with fear and afraid to go out at night. Newcomer Giuseppe Cristiano plays Michele, a 10-year-old boy whose halcyon days are spent riding his bicycle with his friends amid the glories of a nature bursting with fecundity. Then one day he discovers someone or something hidden deep in a hole near an abandoned house. That someone turns out to be Filippo (Mattia di Pierro), a young boy who is, in many ways excluding the economic, Michele’s double. When Michele begins to suspect that his father may be connected to Filippo’s plight, moral quandaries arise and the young boy’s life suddenly becomes more complicated and infinitely riskier.
On the grossest level of entertainment, Salvatores’ skill at prolonging the suspense surrounding the initial revelation of Filippo’s identity is noteworthy. Each riveting visit Michele pays to the hole ups the stakes and raises more questions. More importantly, though, the director is able to tap into the brooding metaphysical suggestivity of Nature that was one of the chief virtues of Terence Malick‘s “Days of Heaven,” an underappreciated film of many years ago. What quickly becomes clear — even from the opening shot of “I’m Not Scared,” which reveals the dank underground that lies unseen and unknown beneath the sun-drenched fields — is that nature, like the human beings who are a part of it, can be both wonderful and cruel, successively and even simultaneously. Michele learns a similar lesson about his young friends, who at one moment can be sweet and innocent and at another can suggest Italy’s authoritarian, fascist past in their unfeelingness for each other.
Viewers who concentrate their attention will realize quickly that the story is actually being told, even composed by Michele in a mythic vein that recalls the Taviani brothers‘ magnificent 1982 film “The Night of the Shooting Stars.” Cinematically, this conceit is continued by shooting the film from Michele’s point of view and while the actual physical angle is never fetishically adhered to, crucial shots remind us exactly whose consciousness we are inhabiting. On other technical levels, the music is an imaginative combination of Philip Glass, Pachelbel’s Canon and, when appropriate, a single, exquisite string. The cinematography is to die for and will remind viewers of Van Gogh, particularly his final canvas, Crows In a Wheatfield, a combination of lush welcome and hovering dread that enhances the running motif of nature as pure ambivalence.
Michele comes to learn, like the great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once taught us, that morality lies not in an abstract, church-approved table of laws, but in our responsibility to the Other. It is when Michele fully assumes the care of Filippo that he does the right thing, and along the way teaches his father the meaning and promise of an ethical life. The great wonder, and pleasure, of “I’m Not Scared” is that this philosophically resonant exploration is accomplished in the guise of what appears at first glance to be little more than a passably well-done but inconsequential thriller.