Let’s take this moment to recognize an official movie genre, the Miramaxical, more or less defined as heavy-handed imports that could just as easily have been made by the blandest hacks in Burbank, but which instead cost one-hundredth as much to buy and peddle. It’s a cornered market in quasi-American knockoffs, the Wal-Mart-ization of the foreign-film market, with a reliable, bachelor-degree boomer audience for whom domestic pop culture has just gotten too youthful and hyperactive, and who may consider seeing a “literary” Italian suspense thriller like I’m Not Scared long before they’d ever deign to sit through the latest, not dissimilar Sony boo machine in a multiplex theater packed with uncontrollable teenagers. Miramaxicals predate Harvey and Bob, of course, as Beat the Clock presaged Fear Factor. But the aberration has become the cultural rule.
Gabriele Salvatores, mezzobrow behind Mediterraneo, adapts Niccolò Ammaniti’s acclaimed novel I’m Not Scared, and the upshot is a general fog of two-dimensional characterization, slowly churning plot gearwork, and an ineffective air of forced lyricism. You’re encouraged to sigh and head-tilt every five minutes at visions of rolling hills of golden wheat; natives of Basilicata, at least, should enjoy the bucolic nostalgia. For whatever it’s worth, Ammaniti’s slim tale isn’t much that Mary Higgins Clark couldn’t have whacked out on a quiet weekend; its prizes and bestseller status can only suggest that 2001 must not have been a money year in Italian fiction. Salvatores’s movie seems to incorporate the modest book’s acquired event-cachet into its own sense of self-importance; you’re expecting an epic, Viscontian political surge at about the same moment you realize it’s a kidnapping story, and nothing more.
The first third or so, revolving around 10-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) and his contentious mob of peasant friends running amok across the countryside during a hot 1970s summer, is promising—the milieu is just wild enough to create anxiety, and the focus on childhood particularities is seductive. The premise kicks in when Michele discovers, near an abandoned farmhouse the kids play in, an old bunker underneath a piece of corrugated tin—and trapped there, a filthy and deranged little boy. (At first, we see only what we take to be a corpse’s foot, shown in a repetitive shock-zoom.) Apparently the 1970s were boom years in southern Italy for penny-ante kidnappings (just as there have been recently in Trinidad and other places), and so Michele slowly—very slowly—realizes that his entire village, including both of his stereotypical parents, have conspired in a ransom plot.
Oddly, though he returns each day to talk and play with the hole-dwelling youngster, Michele doesn’t utter a word to anyone—even before doing so is obviously dangerous. (Pacing is lame throughout: When you reasonably assume that someone will take action, they do nothing.) From there, Michele has a classic, kid’s-lit ethical dilemma, but he also has little personality and no distinctive point of view. Acted in one flavor of broadly sliced prosciutto, and marred with familiar digital punctuation, I’m Not Scared needn’t be prepped for Hollywood recycling—it is its own homogenized remake.