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By Christopher Zinsli | June 29, 2004

When adults behave monstrously, it’s tough for kids to distinguish between right and wrong. Yet young Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), a ten-year-old boy in a tiny village amid the idyllic fields of impoverished 1978 southern Italy, always tries to do the right thing. Whether owning up to a bet to save a young girl’s modesty or watching out for his little sister, Michele’s untainted understanding of right and wrong faces few compromises beyond those of typical childhood dares and betrayals.

But when his father, the greasy yet teasingly affectionate Pino (Dino Abbrescia), comes home with a guest, a frightening gun-toting Brazilian named Sergio (Diego Abatantuono), Michele begins to suspect that all is not as peaceful as the pastoral surroundings would suggest. Michele’s discovery of a young boy named Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro) shackled in a pit near an abandoned monastery sets off a string of events that, Michele soon realizes, will place in jeopardy both himself and his newfound friend.

Gorgeously photographed by Italo Petriccioni (though it would be hard to make the lolling Italian countryside not look attractive) “I’m Not Scared” is not the thriller it’s marketed to be. Though it contains several genuinely thrilling moments, some tense scenes, and a few surprises, the film (from director Gabriele Salvatores, of the Oscar-winner “Mediterraneo”) is more about Michele’s gradual understanding of the adult world than it is about thrills and chills. Appropriately, most of the story is seen through the wide eyes of Michele.

Petriccioni utilizes plenty of Michele point-of-view shots, as the young boy peeks out from behind doors to spy on his village’s adults. Michele learns that Filippo is the centerpiece of a high-profile kidnapping plot in which Pino and Sergio have taken part. This revelation occurs, unfortunately, far too early in the film. As a result, the mystery that had been holding us in our seats dissipates with little payoff. It would have been much more interesting had Salvatores further limited our knowledge of events, forcing us to piece it all together ourselves, as does Michele.

What is excellently captured in Salvatores’s film, however, is the look and feel of those long-forgotten freeform summer days of childhood. Michele is, for the time being, content to blissfully run through golden wheat fields with his friends. When police helicopters swoop over his head (apparently in search of Filippo), he doesn’t fear for his father but rather revels in the experience, waving exuberantly to the pilots. But Michele can’t ignore the threshers that appear on the fields’ horizon (apparently in search of symbolism) or the series of dead animals along his path (apparently caught by aforementioned symbolism) for long.

I’ll admit to not being worldly enough to know whether or not little European boys always run around in their underwear in public, as this movie and many others make it seem, but “I’m Not Scared” manages to convey a truthful approach to the beginning of the end of childhood. Despite a forced deus ex machina ending to the thriller plot, the movie is mostly subtle—in fact, often too subtle. A few scenes seem meaningless until analyzed for their symbolic value, but countless other moments are filled with emotions. Its family humor early on strikes a surprisingly poignant note, especially in the face of the violence soon to follow.

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