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One summer in the late 1970s, in a tiny and impoverished rural area of Southern Italy, 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) finds a little boy trapped in the underground storage room of a farmhouse. While sneaking food and water to the prisoner, Michele comes to realize the truth of the situation: his own parents, conspiring with other locals and with some sinister visitors, have kidnapped the boy (the son of a wealthy couple) and are holding him for ransom.

The central conceit of this Italian film is so strong that it would have taken an incompetent director to make an uninteresting film out of it. It permits a filmmaker to play with two levels of narration: on the one hand, to show an adult mystery as it unfolds in the mind of a child; on the other, to build suspense by counting on the audience to catch on before the hero does. Properly handled, such a structure could serve as the basis for a compelling filmic investigation of problems of knowledge, understanding, and morality.

In Gabriele Salvatores, the film has not an incompetent director but a facile and an opportunistic one, a slick hack who, given a jewel of an idea, one that Joseph Losey or Francesco Rosi, to say nothing of Alfred Hitchcock, would have made into a masterpiece, has thrown it away on decorative and self-aggrandizing touches in the worst manner of the non-existent contemporary Italian cinema. When it should be plain and direct, Salvatoresís direction is overemphatic and gimmicky. At the slightest provocation, and with no particular sense or logic, he uses elaborate Steadicam shots, subjective shots, and overhead shots, attempting to convey whirls of movement or, perhaps, the beauty of the golden landscapes ó all of which merely distracts from the meaning and suspense of the story. He appears not to have asked himself how, why, or when the audience should identify with the protagonist and when the perspective needs to be widened. The directorís recourse to sudden high-angle shots or long shots has no emotional or moral importance; itís just his way of "keeping it interesting," and it proves nothing except the banality of his own mind and his distrust of the minds of his viewers.

This is not to say that the movie is devoid of interest. The story manages to survive Salvatoresís mannerisms, even though the script (perhaps following Niccolò Ammanitiís best-selling novel, which the author adapted) develops the situation in the most timid manner possible, with clichéíd, one-dimensional characterizations of the adults and no exploration of the economic, political, and social aspects of the kidnapping. The last 15 minutes are affecting. That Io non ho paura is watchable at all testifies to the automatic power that a story can take on in cinema when it puts into play the gap between what the protagonist sees and what the viewer knows. If only todayís commercial cinema had more directors who knew how to use this gap. In Italian with English subtitles. (108 minutes)

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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