Though "I'm Not Scared" is set in southern Italy circa 1978, its real milieu is the precipice between childhood innocence and grown-up disillusionment. Been there? Sure, and plenty. Yet the movie balances on that cognitive ledge with a grace that's well worth the return trip.
Fifth-grader Michele Amitrano (Giuseppe Cristiano) is a kid like countless others, if the slightest bit more responsible. A watchful guardian to his bespectacled kid sister, Maria (Giulia Matturro), he's also part of a playgroup that encompasses the usual set of personality types. There's the fat girl who endures ritual humiliation just for the honor of tagging along, and the self-appointed ringleader who imposes his will on the others via simple, sneering malevolence. At home, Michele and Maria wage typical quarrels over chores avoided, testing the patience of parents who -- outwardly, anyway -- are a couple of well-intended disciplinarians. And though their humble village consists of some dilapidated buildings and fields of waving wheat, it could just as easily be Smalltown, U.S.A. -- complete with the mean old fat guy who chews kids out royally for getting too close to his property.
The aura of normality gives way to something more sinister when Michele discovers a large hole in the ground near an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. What he finds in that hole is not a nest of lizards or some water-stained comic books, but a bruised, frightened and nearly feral child named Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro). The kid hasn't fallen in by accident, either: He's been imprisoned there, presumably by adults who have a vested interest in seeing him stay put. Maybe Michele's world isn't so typical after all.
As the latter tasks himself with preserving Filippo's health and sanity via regular visits, the movie floats the idea that the two boys are in fact mirror images. The suggestion is undercut by an obvious disparity of talent: Cristiano's full-bodied portrayal of Michele's caregiving trials is easier to buy into than Di Pierro's overly mannered wild-child routine. That's about the worst that can be said of "I'm Not Scared," which -- as adapted by Niccoló Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano from the former's novel -- excels at interpreting the peculiar currency of childhood. A scene in which Michele and another village youth trade toys for secrets allows director Gabriele Salvatores ("Mediterraneo") to demonstrate that the power-brokering of kids is vastly different from grown-up economics -- but just as critical.
The film shares several elements with the classic "To Kill a Mockingbird," including overt avian imagery, a strong brother-sister bond and (especially) the Boo Radley-esque figure of Filippo, whose true nature is revealed in tense, successive trips down the hole. But there's no Atticus Finch in "I'm Not Scared," no harried-but-saintly role model to blaze a moral path. The more we see of the village adults, the less we like or even accept them. By putting the burden of decency squarely on Michele's shoulders, the movie advances the notion that childhood is our last chance to be noble before "maturity" sweeps in and shuts off our souls. Whether that notion strikes you as romantic or terribly depressing, it's likely to spark some spirited parking-lot debate after the show.
(Opens Friday, May 14, at Enzian Theater)