Marketed as a "coming-of-age" drama upon its recent U.K. theatrical release, Oscar Winning director Gabriele Salvatores' "Io Non Ho Paura" is actually a novel variation of the giallo -- rejuvenating this apparently moribund genre much as Guillermo del Toro managed to revive the hackneyed ghost story in his poetic "The Devil's Backbone." For here, the usual giallo themes of conspiracy, cruelty, greed and corruption are portrayed from the perspective of a ten year old boy, growing up in a poverty-stricken rural Italy during the summer of 1978 (the film is apparently based loosely on true events). His idyllic childhood is sharply punctured when this child makes a strange and disturbing discovery which forces him to confront the moral ambiguity and untrustworthiness of the adult world which has always nurtured him.
Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) discovers a half-naked starving child his own age, manacled to a stump and hidden in a dirty pit near the dilapidated house where he and his friends sometimes play. At first, the mute, virtually immobile figure is simply inspiration for Michele's already rich -- and rather lurid -- fantasy life and becomes a character in the young boy's fantastical stories. But soon, curiosity leads Michele to strike up a tentative friendship with the confused and occasionally delusional young captive (named Filippo). He also starts to realise -- without fully understanding the reasons why -- that many of the adult community in his crumbling, poverty-stricken, village, appear to be in on a desperate plot to extort money from the child's rich Milanese parents: even his own much revered father, Pino (Dino Abbrescia)! Michele's loyalty and friendship is about to be tested to the limit...
This beautiful film about an ugly subject doesn't really quite fit comfortably into any particular genre: a vile conspiracy is central to the plot -- but the "giallo" mystery angle is soon dissipated, for we quickly learn who is behind it. It certainly isn't a horror film either, though there is one memorable jump-out-of-the-seat jolt that outdoes any similar horror-based movie moment this year! Neither is there a massive body count -- though brutality and the constant threat of violence and death hang over proceedings like a dark and ominous cloud. This is a drama which conveys the sickening lows human beings can sometimes be driven to, but ends up on a transcendent note that leaves the viewer with hope for humanity's natural capacity for good as well as evil.
The plot itself is, in some respects, rather slight; Salvatores dwells instead on the relationships between Michele, his friends and their parents -- and it is here where the real strength of the movie lies. The entire cast are excellent: Michele's conflicted parents are beautifully portrayed by Dino Abbrescia and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon. Abbrescia gives a subtle, nuanced performance as the father, Pino: a poor working class man -- full of Italian machismo but also tenderness -- who is ultimately driven by love for his family. Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as Michele's mother, Anna, is the perfect complement to Abbrescia's rugged patriarch: a strong woman who runs the household while Pino is away because of his work, but who is often forced to take a subordinate role to her domineering husband. The adults are largely seen through the eyes of young Michele, and the viewer is often completely enveloped in the children's perspective as the film colours-in the relationships between Michele and all of the other children he spends his days playing with. The young cast give some extraordinary performances, which enables the film to convincingly portray the range of attitudes and concerns of a group of ten-year- olds like no other recent movie. Special mention has to go to young Giulia Matturo who plays Michele's younger sister Maria. Matturo gives a lovely performance as the gawky, bespectacled little girl who drives her brother mad -- even though he's always looking out for her! Very young children in films can often end up being intensely annoying; but Matturo is a delight, and even I -- probably the least paternalistically inclined human being on the planet -- ended up just wanting to scoop the little darling up and take her on trips to the funfair, buy her candy-floss, and generally be very parent-like to her!
At the centre of the movie is, of course, the friendship between Michele and Filippo played by the incredibly precocious actors Giuseppe Cristiano and Mattie Di Pierro respectively. The relationship between the two is all the more powerful for not being romanticised in any way. At first, Michele is scared by the haunting, emaciated appearance of Filippo; but then he becomes angry that he doesn't get enough appreciation from the young hostage for feeding him! Gradually though, the two boys realise that they are the same age and that they have a lot in common. For Michele, the idea of being trapped in a hole is almost a metaphor for how he feels about having to live in his dying village; and when the lives of both boys are endangered, they learn to give each other the strength and encouragement they both need to persevere.
The rural location and difficult subject-matter of the film gives it an obvious affinity with Lucio Fulci's classic "Don't Torture A Duckling" in the giallo stakes; but Salvatores' film is ultimately a quietly refined and uplifting piece despite there being some ambiguity about the fate of one of the protagonists at its conclusion. The Italian film industry has been depressed for some time, but this movie is truly a modern masterpiece and deserves a wide audience. See it!
This two-disc special edition from Italian company Medusa features a stunning, reference quality transfer from an immaculate source print. Italo Patriccione's gorgeous photography is perfectly rendered here, and the Italian countryside has rarely been captured so evocatively on film. Audio options include Italian and Spanish 5.1 surround sound tracks with removable English subtitles. There is also a commentary track by director Gabriele Salvatores but this is, of course, in Italian only.
All of the other extras are on the second disc and all of the material could easily have fitted on to just one disc; but Medusa have wisely taken the decision to devote all the space on disc one to the movie, bringing maximum clarity to the audio and visual aspects of the film. We have a thirty-five minute 'making-of' documentary and a seventeen minute behind-the-scenes featurette; both are in Italian with Italian subtitles only. Nevertheless, they do both feature tantalising and informative footage from the set of the film as well as interviews with the main cast members and the director. We also get a trailer and two photo galleries rounding of this beautifully packaged special edition.
A U.S. DVD release by Buena Vista is imminent; but the quality of Medusa's transfer is unlikely to be beaten. Very highly recommended.