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Into the Abyss: Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) uncovers a terrible secret in 'I'm Not Scared.'

In the Dark

There's plenty to be afraid of in the ground in Italian thriller 'I'm Not Scared'

By Richard von Busack

WE'VE SEEN movies made in Sicily and Calabria that looked like they took place on another planet, but what director Gabriele Salvatores finds in the province of Potenza, Italy, is something else: an Italian analogue to Texas. It's wheat-growing terrain, with blistering summers. In 1978, a 10-year-old boy named Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) is lounging through his summer surrounded by a small gang of kids. He is with the gang but not of it; he is fanciful and in love with tales of mystery and the imagination. By happenstance, Michele is alone when he finds a cave near the ruins of a farmhouse. He murmurs to himself about Ali Baba, but what he finds inside isn't gold or jewels but a vague something.

At first, Michele thinks it is a corpse, then a specter. Then he realizes that it's a chained-up little boy named Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), who's filthy and starting to lose his mind from confinement. Because we see the situation from Michele's eyes, the possibilities run rampant; in an area this poor, it might be cannibals who stole him, fattening the child up. (The property is owned by a hog farmer who seems to be reverting into a boar himself; he lies around with a radio strapped to his fat arm, probably out of fear that someone will steal it while he sleeps in the sun.)

Only a half-dozen buildings make up the hamlet where Michele lives, which limits the suspects. Then Michele's father, a truck driver, announces that some friends will be staying in their house. When they arrive, they're a bad crowd: his partners in a kidnapping that's not proceeding as planned. And they're starting to think about encouraging their victim's parents to pay by sending them an ear.

Previously, Salvatores directed Mediterraneo, an Italian postcard that had an art-house following. I'm Not Scared is a far more impressive effort, a first-rate and good-looking nerve tightener. The revelation of the child in the cave is stunningly scary. You're not sure if the child isn't a ghost: Filippo thinks he's dead, and he is near-blind from the darkness and whispers about the raccoons that won't leave him alone. His captors are nasty pieces of work. The boss, Sergio (Diego Abatantuono, very good), talks about his richer life in Brazil in a way that make you shudder for the Brazilians. His driver (Giorgio Careccia), a shaven-headed dandy, may not be a psycho yet, but he might well be one some day. Michele's father is played by Dino Abbrescia with one of the most unnerving false smiles since John "Gomez Addams" Astin, and he smiles it around a jaunty cigarette holder, just as Astin's father used to. Between the exposed landscape and the just-above-sustenance lives lived in this no-name village, in which the heat and poverty is so pervasive that no one notices it, you don't have a clue how the kidnapped boy will escape mutilation and death.

The last 20 minutes ease you off the hook. When Michele rides his bicycle, among tame-looking snakes and strange-faced owls, the sequence should have had the magic and terror of similar passages in The Night of the Hunter. It's apparent, however, that the gears are shifting for a happy ending. Still, this is a gripping film--particularly recommended for smarter children, of about Michelee's age. The least-important part is the way it shows up the far more expensive Man on Fire in all of its fields: as a study of kidnapping, as a study of children, as a study in terror.

I'm Not Scared (R; 108 min.), directed by Gabriele Salvatores, written by Niccolò Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano, based on the novel by Ammaniti, photographed by Italo Petriccione, and starring Giuseppe Cristiano and Mattia Di Pierro, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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