Friday, July 24, 2009

I'm Not Scared

'I'm Not Scared' doesn't begin promisingly. There are lush, lingering shots of golden cornfields. Acres and acres of waving corn. Seriously, there's so much waving corn that you could easily mistake this for the early part of a Michael Bay film - you know, the bit before he remembers to bring on the giant robots or blow the shit out of everything. Oh yeah, and there's Einaudi burbling away on the soundtrack, endlessly regurgitating that fucking annoying diamond advert music that went over so popular with legions of blue-rinse Classic FM listeners. Then - as the corn waves and the violins crescendo and the cinematography threatens to slide off the screen and wrap itself around a box of chocolates - a bunch of kids ride their bicycles all Spielberg-like right through the middle of it.

Then you remember that director Gabriele Salvatores is best known for his 1991 Oscar-winner 'Meditteraneo' - a sun-dappled war movie, untroubled by the grungy business of war, in which sod all happens, very prettily, for an hour and a half.

You strap yourself in, making sure there's a beer or a bottle of wine or a glass of scotch to hand. You offer up a vague prayer that the phone will ring, or there'll be a knock at the door. Something to relieve the 97-minute tedium of Einaudi and waving cornfields and the kind of blue skies you normally get in holiday brochures where you just know the photographer's gone to town with the polarising filter. Does this sound snide? I'm not kidding: 'I'm Not Scared' is so cloyingly gorgeous in places that it makes your average David Lean epic look like it was shot hand-held on a cameraphone on the streets of Beirut.

And then this happens:

The kids race to a deserted farmhouse, the loser having to pay a forfeit. When Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) complains that he was only last because his sister Maria (Giulia Matturo) tripped, gang leader Skull (Stefano Biase) picks on tubby and defenceless Barbara (Adriana Conserva), randomly declaring her the loser. The other kids back him up. Barbara, becoming tearful, asks what the forfeit is. "Show it to us," Skull sneers - 10 years old and you can already tell how shittily he's going to treat his girlfriend/wife/casual flings later in life. When Barbara hesitates, Skull slaps her. Barbara, pathetically, starts fumbling at the buttons of her skirt and suddenly the golden corn and the bright blue sky and the swirling violins seem like they were all part of a different movie, one you watched a couple of weeks ago. You start wondering where Salvatores is going with the scene. When he's going to call time on it.

Fortunately, Michele does the decent thing and takes the forfeit on himself (he's made to walk a rickety beam across an otherwise fallen-in ceiling then leap from an upper window into the branches of a nearby tree) but the scene has been soured, the bright summer's day darkened, the prettiness marred and the point made: kids can be evil little sods.

And more so, the film avers as it progresses, their parents.

When Michele and Maria return to the deserted farmhouse to find Maria's glasses, Michele discovers a hole covered with a piece of corrugated metal. Prising it back, he sees something at the bottom of the hole. A foot. A child's foot. Michele panics, leaps on his bike and pedals away like mad.

It doesn't take him too long to return, though. Tired of Skull's bullying, tired of the tense atmosphere at home - his father Pino (Dino Abbrescia) is often away, his mother Anna (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) is prone to mood swings - the hole and the mystery of its occupant are too priceless a secret and Michele keeps going back.

The young boy in the hole (he's Michele's age) is called Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro) and he's been kept underground, in the dark, for so long that he's convinced he can't see. More than that: he's convinced he's dead and that Michele is an angel. Michele's parents know a lot more about him, though. He's the child of a rich couple, the victim of a kidnapping arranged by Pino's bullish and unpredictable friend Sergio (Diego Abatantuono). Only their little get-rich-quick scheme (which all the adults in the village are in on) isn't paying off as expected. The money's not appearing and Filippo's becoming a liability. Soon they're drawing straws to see who undertakes the grim business of disposing of him.

'I'm Not Scared' is almost a very good film. It captures the sense of wonder, the sense of immediacy, that children exhibit towards the world. Never mind that Michele has found someone imprisoned in a hole, leg shackled - it's an awesome secret that nobody else knows (or so he thinks - for a while, anyway) and while he feeds Filippo and takes him water, even contriving for a short period to bring him out of the whole, it doesn't occur to him until very late in the day - until, specifically, he sees Sergio with a gun and understands exactly what Sergio intends on using the piece for - that Filippo might actually appreciate being released.

Salvatores captures the darker aspects of childhood, as well. There's the scene mentioned at the start of this review. There's Maria expressionlessly "drowning" her Barbie doll in a water trough ("she was broken anyway"). There's Pino's frequently rough treatment of Michele.The film is set in 1978, the Seventies being a time when parents could happily wallop their kids without any Social Services intervention (I speak from experience on this point) and short-tempered lorry driver Pino only seems able to show affection to his son by engaging him in arm-wrestling competitions. Elsewhere, he berates the boy harshly, at one point yelling in his face "Get lost".

Similarly, the pastoral cinematography occasionally peels away the glossiness of its own veneer and DoP Italo Petriccione incisively evokes the dirt poor village, the drab houses and the hardscrabble lives of the inhabitants. Sadly, the veneer is smoothed back into place for the finale, Salvatores ramping up the melodrama and steering things firmly into Spielberg territory. Mawkish music? Check. Emotionally manipulative direction? Check. A huge bright light beaming down on the protagonist? Check. The niggling sense that this could have been a really punchy, powerful and thought-provoking ending if only the film-makers had demonstrated the courage of their convictions and not gone the cheap, hollow, shamelessly tear-jerking route? Check, check, check.

It's apposite that the closing frames of 'I'm Not Scared' are as flawed as the opening ones. Style and content, set-piece and cinematography, dialogue and music all seem to be at odds with each other. This is European cinema slavishly trying to emulate Hollywood and unless you're Luc Besson and believe in the holy trinity of car chases, shoot outs and hand-to-hand, that can only be a bad idea.


Samuel Wilson said...

At one point a few years ago I was ready to call this the best Italian film of the decade. I still like it, but your criticisms are sound, and in any event by now I've seen The Best of Youth and Gomorrah, better films both.

Neil Fulwood said...

It impressed me a lot more on the first viewing, too. And when 'I'm Not Scared' works, it works well. The evocation of the run-down village is highly effective, and there are good, naturalistic performances from the young cast. Ironically, its strengths are what really accentuate the flaws.