I’m Not Scared (Io non ho paura) is the first novel by Niccolò Ammaniti to be translated (by Jonathan Hunt) into English, and it’s one of my favorite books of the past few years. Ammaniti is young (he was born in 1966; the novel was published in 2000), but he is already regarded at home, in Italy, as one of the reigning literary lights. It’s a gorgeous, thrilling book; although (at 200 pages) it may be a tad too long to be classified as such, it has about it the feel of a novella. Like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, it’s a story of shattered innocence (and I have in mind James’s governess as well as her charges, for when the events she later recounts occurred she also was a child, and away from a sheltered home for the first time). Enter director Gabriele Salvatores, who won an Oscar for the wartime comedy Mediterraneo (1991). Working from a script by Ammaniti himself and Francesca Marciano, Salvatores has wrought the most wrenching film of its kind since Agnieszka Holland’s Olivier, Olivier (1991). (At the low end of the genre would be Rob Reiner’s crassly sentimental and superficial 1986 Stand by Me, from Stephen King’s novella The Body.) Call the genre “a child’s horrific coming of age.” I like the film. How sad, though, that it falls short of Ammaniti’s small masterpiece.
The story is set in rural southern Italy in the summer of 1978. It is a time of national kidnappings, in response to inequities between the rich and the poor. Decent villagers, with the help of a northerner now living in Brazil, have concocted a scheme to redress the socioeconomic imbalance. The scheme is monstrous. The villagers have kidnapped the ten-year-old son of a wealthy family up north. They are keeping this boy, his leg chained, hidden in a hole in the ground in the outskirts of town. The shy boy, Filippo, believes he is dead; he also believes that his parents are dead, for if they are not, why is it that they do not rescue him? Incredibly, Filippo’s parents refuse to pay the ransom but instead employ stalling techniques in televised messages to the kidnappers. We read between the lines that they’re being manipulated like puppets by authorities as their son’s life slips away. No child should endure what Filippo is daily being made to endure. In a grisly homage to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), with which the film especially has a good deal in common, the kidnappers are threatening to cut off one of their prisoner’s ears.
Filippo isn’t the novel’s or the film’s protagonist. The main character, not so coincidentally, is another ten-year-old boy. His name is Michele (pronounced Me-KEL). While playing out in the field, he discovers Filippo in the hole and brings the prisoner water and food and friendship. Michele, at ten, doesn’t know what to do. He discovers that his father is among the kidnappers. When he learns that Filippo is about to be shot to death by whoever among the kidnappers draws a short matchstick, he races by bicycle at night to rescue his secret friend, taking his place, in effect, because he cannot climb out of the space that he helped lift Filippo out of. His father drew the short matchstick. Thank goodness, the boy is, he believes, safe; but, not realizing in the dark that this soul is the one whom he loves most in the world, the father shoots his son even as the boy shouts out in relief, “Papa!” “I didn’t know that it was you!” the father protests as he carries his bleeding son. But the child in danger always was Michele. Such vulnerability is something all children share; harm one child and you harm all children. Police helicopters descend on an awful scene.
As surely as the Boy of Winander is, at some level, William Wordsworth himself in The Prelude, Michele and Filippo are at some level the same boy suffering the same confusions. It is by dint of the more fluid nature of language that this is a hundred times clearer in the book. Stripped of the clarity of that, I’m Not Scared is less compelling. Unless I missed it, the title is left unexplained in the film while it’s clearly explained in the book; presumably the filmmaker felt that such an explanation would damage the film. In the novel, Filippo tells Michele, when the former is attempting to rescue the latter, “I’m scared,” to which Michele responds, “No, you are not scared”—and the moment is an epiphany, because it brilliantly draws the connection between Michele’s boyish self-dialogues and his exchanges with his secret friend, Filippo. Too, the book is so much more detailed than the film, which leaves out, for instance, the physical exhaustion that Michele suffers in his attempt to free and rescue Filippo. For one thing, Michele in the film doesn’t fall asleep as does Michele in the book—and, truly, I don’t know any moment in the book that better crystallizes the horrible limitations on Michele to accomplish what he so desperately wants to accomplish. Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared is better keyed to the prohibitive realities of childhood than Salvatores’s is.
Curiously, it is in the area where the film most excels that it also fails most to match the quality of the book. Salvatores has done a splendid job of translating into visual terms the subjectivism of a novel that’s written entirely from Michele’s ten-year-old point of view. This includes, for example, startling closeups of human faces and animals; the camera seems to become Michele’s eyes when the boy peers into the mysterious hole in the ground beneath the steel sheet covering it. Nevertheless, whereas the novel is wholly subjective, the film is constantly reaching to find formal ways to embody this subjectivism. There’s a difference. The novel is what it is; the film is trying mightily to be what the novel is.
One of the best ways in which the film succeeds in this endeavor is by rendering mundane images ominous from the intercession of Michele’s adventures vis-à-vis Filippo and of the nightmare of Filippo’s ordeal in which Michele imaginatively shares. Overheard snippets of conversation between his parents fall into this category; outdoors, a shot of machines threshing vast fields of wheat, a suddenly alien, intrusive and frightening image, may be the most outstanding example. One also should note that Italo Petriccione’s color cinematography is luxuriant in both sunlight and darkness. Petriccione won both the David di Donatello Award and the prize of the Italian film journalists as the year’s best cinematographer. The latter group also named Salvatores best filmmaker.
A good deal of the film’s charm and interest derives from the engaging performance that Giuseppe Cristiano gives as Michele. Let’s say at once that the film’s Michele isn’t as complex a character as is the novel’s Michele and that Cristiano is nowhere near as trenchant as was Edmund Meschke as twelve-year-old Edmund, undone by the burden of supporting his family in postwar Germany, in Roberto Rossellini’s astounding Germany, Year Zero (1947). But he is a beautiful boy who gives an alert and sensitive performance, and in particular the images of his protectively leading his bespectacled younger sister by the hand are irresistible. Cristiano certainly does a better job than the adult members of the cast. (I haven’t the faintest idea why Diego Abatantuono has won supporting-actor prizes for his role as Diego, the kidnapping associate from Brazil.)
But I do like this film a lot. Young Cristiano is a delight to watch. But, given that Ammaniti had a hand in the script, I feel somewhat let down. Ammaniti’s novel is a fast “read” and an indelible one. The film, however wonderful, doesn’t really get down into the hole.
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