The boy is Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), a creative, inquisitive youngster who lives with his parents and kid sister in a rural rundown village on the outskirts of nowhere. He roams the gorgeous arid fields with his friends, and then rushes home to eat dinner and arm-wrestle his father. It appears that Dad is away for chunks of time, but neither Michele nor the audience gets enough information to fill in the blanks.
The pressures of impressing his father, caring for his sister and just being a kid implode on Michele when he makes a discovery that changes his life irrevocably. After uncovering a loose piece of sheet metal out in the fields, Michele finds... well, for the sake of avoiding a spoiler, let's say he finds someone rather than something. A person that has the potential to open his eyes, yet ruin his life.
Salvatores, directing his first major international release since winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Mediterraneo (1991), shows us an Italy you don't see in Under the Tuscan Sun. He combines the grittiness of tough times and horrible men with pastoral Italian fields, a perfect reflection of the balance of Michele's day-to-day existence. But the metaphor goes a step further; as if to emphasize the monotony of lower-class life, Salvatores' fields aren't lush rolling expanses of green. Instead, cinematographer Italo Petriccione keeps a very limited color palette, with fields that resemble the dirt and sand surrounding Michele's small neighborhood.
Within a world of somber discoveries and limited options, young Cristiano delivers an impressive performance as Michele, seemingly confident in the knowledge that the film rests on his slight shoulders. Sometimes, he invites us into his world by quietly reciting short tales, stories that illustrate his expansive imagination and ability to convert moments of tension into childhood comic books. Through these tales, we also learn that Michele may not completely trust his parents -- they're more useful to him as characters. As despicable thugs work their way in and out of the family's house, Michele learns that a small town can hold many secrets, and that his parents are at the center of a big one.
Without much fanfare or manipulation, Salvatores creates a sympathetic hero out of Michele. He reminds us of Leonardo DiCaprio's character in This Boy's Life or Alison Lohman's in White Oleander, kids whose lives are dangerously out of control and out of their own hands. Salvatores and Cristiano develop this feeling with less melodrama than those other films, and without making Michele seem naïve or passive. There are some dangerous moments for our young hero, but there's not much that feels overwhelmingly ominous.
This easy flow allows the film a good dose of reality, and lets the conclusion provide a solid wallop. It's an ending that flaunts a core of humanity within a shell of evil and greed. Salvatores' final image is the perfect capper, a visual both harsh and dreamy, very much like the entirety of his film.
Aka Io non ho paura.
I dunno, I'm a little scared.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th March 2003
Box Office USA: $1.4M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Cattleya, Medusa Film, Colorado Film Production, Alquimia Cinema, The Producers Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 88 Rotten: 10
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Gabriele Salvatores
Screenwriter: Niccolò Ammaniti, Francesca Marciano