Species of Justice in “I’m Not Scared”

by Joshua H. Liberatore

The opening scene of I’m Not Scared (Io Non Ho Paura, 2003) shows a lean, tan-skinned Michele Amitrano (Giuseppe Cristiano) sprinting through a field of golden wheat in Southern Italy. Stunning photography and color composition do not distract, however, from the film’s profound moral argument, whose basic positions are laid out from the outset. As Michele and his gang of village friends race one another to an old abandoned farmhouse, Michele stops suddenly to heed the call of distress from his younger sister, Maria (Giulia Matturo), who has fallen and broken her glasses. Relinquishing the race, Michele locates her and leads her on to the destination, where upon arrival, he must explain his tardiness to the group’s sinister – if such a word may aptly describe a ten-year-old – leader, Skull. Michele proceeds with a rational defense: he had stopped to help his sister and thus, must protest his status as “rotten egg.”

    The argument takes a turn when a chubby, aggressive girl pushes Michele down as if to emphasize his newly earned pariahood, in which she delights for an unstated reason. When she asks “Who has to pay up?”, however, we learn that Skull harbors a peculiar sense of justice: the fat girl must pay up by showing the gang her private parts. When she accuses Skull of base unilateralism and threatens to leave the gang for good, he fabricates a democratic vote, in which all join his suggestion – though with visible reluctance – to punish her. Even little Maria, who scarcely understands the system much less the punishment, indicates her assent (as she solicits in whispers an explanation from kindly Michele). Tension builds as the fat girl slowly unbuttons her shorts, her eyes averted in shame that disarms both the audience and most of the children (only Skull smirks . . . sinisterly). At the last moment before her humiliation is consummated, Michele’s voice and long arm raise to the cry of “Ferma!” (Stop!) He repudiates her punishment, offers himself as the true “rotten egg,” and, much to Skull’s satisfaction, agrees to walk across a rickety plank in the farmhouse’s upper level. By substituting the fat girl’s shame with his own intrepid achievement, Michele thus completes the exercise in redemption while establishing his character as a candidate for heroic and compassionate self-sacrifice, a moral premise which anchors the narrative as a whole.

    The real plot of the film unfolds when Michele returns to the farmhouse alone, to retrieve Maria’s broken spectacles and also to make a more fateful and significant discovery: a ghost-faced boy his own age chained to the bottom of a deep hole. Terrified and already late for supper, Michele slams down the corrugated tin cover and flees the scene, returning home to familiar scenes of domestic bickering and his father’s return from the north. Two thematic threads emerge from this carefully constructed scene, which serves as a parallel reinforcement of the opening sequence. First are the dictates of Mediterranean machismo, by which Michele must arm-wrestle his father in order to earn the gift he has brought for the children. Except that traditional machismo (its ten-year-old variant anyway) is not sufficient, and only with Maria’s spirited assistance can Michele vanquish the older man’s superior strength. Second, in complement to Michele’s physical (if staged) victory, his father also loses in the drawing of matchsticks to determine who will retrieve the wine from the cellar. Father introduces this system as a carryover from his military days, as the best way to determine who would “volunteer” for the deadliest missions. Fascinated by the random but democratic luck of such a high-stakes selection, the children glory in their second triumph of the evening. Meanwhile the attentive viewer contemplates hints that the father engineered the result in both cases in his children’s favor, an observation that will be well rewarded in the film’s final scenes.

    As Michele continues to involve himself in the captured boy’s survival by bringing him water and food, and also spending time with him in attempts to discover who he is and why he is so oddly imprisoned, a startling discovery is made. Michele’s father, the gruff but apparently loving Pino Amitrano (Dino Abbrescia), is part of a bungled conspiracy to kidnap the boy, Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), from his wealthy Milanese parents and threaten his life in order to raise a hefty ransom. The details of the plan, which Michele gradually learns through close observation (he recognizes a crockery pattern the farmhouse clutter) and daring acts of surveillance, are never made perfectly clear. Nevertheless, the audience understands a few key features: the plot involves most if not all of the adults in Michele’s village; the plan is not succeeding (the police are hot on their trail and the ransom has not materialized); and the conspirators constantly argue about the scheme’s endgame as well as organizational matters such as who is in charge, who delegates. Painfully, and with much scruple, we realize, through Michele’s just actions – which simultaneously thwart the plot’s advancement and yet do not bespeak harsh judgments against his own parents’ role – that the village’s poverty and lack of prospects are the real culprit here. Circumstances have reduced otherwise good and decent people to committing an act of unpardonable cruelty and injustice.

    I’m Not Scared, under the skilled supervision of director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo, 1991), thus effectively illustrates a complex moral and a very real one. Michele’s clandestine heroism and consequential bravery yield positive results, but not without costs. As the film reaches its narrative climax, we see the themes of justice and self-sacrifice, established so solidly in the opening sequences, elegantly integrated into symmetry with the thrilling denouement in which Michele must choose between his affectionate loyalty to family and his principled knowledge of right and wrong. By this point in the drama, the trust we have built in Michele as the moral arbiter of both the film and the desperate society it portrays delivers us to a satisfying, if not crystal clear, conclusion. Throughout the film, we see Michele’s daytime heroism is supported by nighttime fantasy, in which Michele fulfills in real life the brave deeds of his invented model in the story he is composing by flashlight. Thus, it is Michele’s imagination, his creative intuition, that allows him to rise above the practical worries that have driven his parents toward crime and correct a grievous wrong with decisive action.

    American politicians of both parties are fond of using notions such as justice, freedom, character, and most recently, change, as if they designated firm moral absolutes without nuances. Motivations differ. Conservatives deploy these terms to combat what they see as the scourge of moral relativism, but in doing so also mask a deep-seated fear of complexity and contextualized understanding in confronting problems. Liberals, in turn, tend to embrace such terms to dispel the appearance of wobbliness or weakness in the face of the hard realities of governing in “these dangerous times.” In a time when many Americans feel nagging doubt about both the substance and feasibility of such lofty political aspirations as “spreading freedom” and “ensuring the blessings of liberty” around the globe, I’m Not Scared provides some refreshing reminders about the troubling complexity of our moralistic adventures. Concepts like justice and freedom, sadly, are not Platonic Forms by the time we discover them in practice, but are more akin to the scope of a classificatory genus, for which there are many species.

    Just because a vote is taken does not in itself guarantee that justice has been served. A “random selection” may not constitute genuine democracy, and desperate circumstances, however much they evoke our sympathy, never justify extortion and cruelty. Finally, Michele’s example shows us that the unilateral action of a strong-hearted individual, even against the will of an entire community, does not necessarily preclude the service of justice and the distinction of moral authority.

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