Coming of age movies naturally tend to focus on the loss of innocence, the gaining of maturity. This trope is often inextricably tied to sexual awakening, à la Blue is the Warmest Color and Summer of ’42. Sometimes a character receives a kind of adult gnosis, a shattering glimpse into how the world really works: King of the Hill, Stand by Me, Juno. Often, it’s a mixture, like Moonrise Kingdom. I’m Not Scared, by Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo, Sud), is unique in that it explores a sparsely-mined facet of childhood: obliviousness.
The opening scenes are all a halcyon idyll. Young Michele and his friends bike through the Southern Italian countryside, frolicking through wheat fields, exploring abandoned buildings, living a Calvin and Hobbes strip. Their universe is limited to their small town, and the grown-ups therein; the biggest fear is not being home in time to set the table for dinner.
Upon the occasion of a frivolous frolic, Michele’s sister drops her eyeglasses, and he goes back to a derelict farmhouse to retrieve them. He finds them atop a metal sheet covering a hole in the ground. Given his carefree, exploratory nature, Michele investigates, and, peering into the depths, finds a tow-headed boy his age, chained to the stone.
Now here is where we get into the meat of Salvatores’s film. We all know how an adult would handle a revelation such as this: ‘Hey, what is your name, where are your parents, oh dear you seem to have fallen down a rather large hole let me get help,’ etc. But Michele is only ten, and the reason that many ten-year-olds do not think deeply about things is because they can’t. Their brains simply aren’t developed enough yet. To Michele, this is an odd situation for another child to be in, but he accepts it as, well, just something that is.
He is old enough to know that the child in the hole, whose name we learn is Filippo, needs food and water. He walks into a grocer’s establishment, asking ‘What can I buy for 500 lira?’ Just a loaf of bread, it seems, which he lowers into Filippo’s prison with a rope. But when Filippo cannot eat the entire loaf in one sitting, Michele asks for the rest back, to have for himself. He simply doesn’t have enough life experience to work out why this may be selfish, or dangerous.
Of course, the audience eventually discovers why Filippo is down the well, who put him there, and what is likely to happen to him. Part of the brilliance of I’m Not Scared is that the information given to the audience often goes over Michele’s head, but we’re into his point-of-view enough that we can understand his nescience without it being frustrating. Sometimes, a grand event in someone’s youth isn’t enough shock them into growing up. For some, that may only come with time.
I’m Not Scared is currently streaming on Mubi in the US; it will expire in about a week from the date of this post.