Plumbing the darkness of “sunny Italy” in the 1970s
Slowly, Italy is grappling with the difficult period in the 1970s commonly known as gli anni piombi (literally the lead years but translated as the years of the bullet). Terrorists detonated bombs in the major cities, disrupting daily life and tourism (an economic necessity), and the menace of kidnapping lurked for families of even modest wealth. These abductions remained widespread until legislators foiled ransom demands by freezing victims’ family assets. Two earnest, anemic attempts to depict this period surfaced at the New York Film Festival last year — Good Morning, Night and The Best of Our Youth — (see 2003 NYFF write-up). Both films rely to a great extent on re-enactments, but despite some very good acting (particularly Maya Sansa in Good Morning, Night), these docudramas reveal little. For Italians or students of contemporary Italian history, episodes such as Aldo Moro’s 1978 kidnapping (in Good Morning, Night) and the missions of the Red Brigade (one sequence in the Best of Youth) have implications that needn’t be spelled out, but for the great majority of international viewers, such references are far too insular.
The completely fictional I’m Not Scared succeeds where the earlier films fail, capturing the instability and violence of a period whose roots, like just about everything else in Italy, lie deep in the conflict between south and north. (Directed by Gabriele Salvatores, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Niccolo Ammaniti, co-scriptwriter with Francesca Marciano.) I’m Not Scared uses a thriller structure, the story told from the perspective of 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) in the 1970s. Michele brutally comes of age in a country at constant odds with itself, in which vestiges of the often stereotyped familism and clannishness linger, and the lively embers of southern resentment need little fanning.
Set in the peninsula’s southernmost interior regions of Basilicata and Puglia, I’m Not Scared starts below ground, along the intestinal walls of the hole in which wealthy, abducted Filippo (Mattia di Pierro), a delicate blonde northerner, has been stowed. Above ground, a group of hardscrabble children bicycle through a sea of corn, the rich gold and bright yellow of their bucolic surroundings undercut by the casual, Lord of the Flies-style savagery they practice on each other. The children’s landscape, though gorgeous, is plagued with unremitting heat, nefarious locals, and dismal prospects for their future. Surely they will follow their fathers to employment elsewhere; in fact, Michele’s mother encourages him to leave and never come back.
While playing with his friends, Michele stumbles on the covered pit in which Filippo is hidden. Terrified and repelled by what he takes initially for a corpse, Michele befriends the spooky creature. Too long underground, Filippo keeps his light-sensitive blue eyes protectively closed, his hair and body filthy beyond recognition. Michele makes no mention of his discovery, Filippo representing a kind of fantasy brother he both pities and idealizes.
In part this has to do with Michele’s straitened family life. His no-hoper father, Pino (Dino Abbrescia), spends months working far from home to support them, while his mother, Anna (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) tries to be father and mother and to run the house. They belong to the portion of Italian society still doomed to backwardness; a perennial underclass done dirty by the worst of corrupt Italian social programs. Their home is one of an isolated clutch of doleful, boxy structures, their alimentary needs met by a tiny storefront shop, their streets unlit, even unpaved. Such “developments” were characteristic of unsuccessful 1970s government strategies for coping with the housing problems of the south.
As he gets to know Filippo and to feel more protective toward him, Michele inadvertently discovers that every adult in his life has a part in Filippo’s kidnapping. He soon learns of the fate in store for Filippo, the devilish choice put in terms a child would understand: his mother all but says that the ransom will let them leave their misery behind, to “eat mussels at the seaside.” Michele’s efforts to undermine the grown-ups’ plan pit him against all his loyalties, threatening his very well-being. His final sacrifice is startling and yet eerily fated, as much a function of his family’s bad luck as that of his caste.
Italo Petriccione’s cinematography is stunning without being romantic. The film is shot close to the ground, quite literally from a 10-year-old’s perspective, a risky choice that pays off. Director Salvatores’ twee tendencies (Mediterraneo was his first film) surface now and then as in close-ups of Michele and his sister (Giulia Matturro) with breakfast cocoa-moustaches. But in general he leads his cast of young non-professionals and established adult actors to genuine and quite affecting performances.
The film is marred greatly by Pepo Scherman’s and Ezio Bosso’s overwrought, soggy score, which quotes from Pachelbel’s shell-less “Canon” and emulates Philip Glass at his droniest.
The student movements of 1977 differed most markedly in their rejection of the violence to which their 1968 cohorts resorted. Italian youth made a conscious choice to just enjoy “stare insieme” (being together), a kind of passivity only recently set aside as they’ve taken to the streets to protest globalization, Italian labor laws, and the war in Iraq. Cinematically, the ’77 generation produced some of the late 1980s’ and 1990s’ most cloying successes (Cinema Paradiso, Life Is Sweet, Caro Diario, Mediterraneo), channeling the anger and violence of “the bullet years” into the equally insidious flipside of nostalgia and sentimentality.
I’m Not Scared may signal a renewal of compelling, socially aware Italian filmmaking. At least it offers none of the feel-good solace that trivializes many of its immediate predecessors. With bitter authenticity and melancholy beauty, I’m Not Scared hints at the many complexities with which “sunny” Italy has yet to come to terms.