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Ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) lives with his parents, Pino (Dino Abbrescia) and Anna (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), in a remote, rural area of southern Italy. It is summertime in the late 1970s and Michele's days are filled with carefree bicycling and playful adventures amidst the picturesque cornfields with his friends. When his little sister (Giulia Matturro) loses her glasses, Michele goes back to retrieve them for her, he discovers a mysterious trap-door of corrugated iron. Nervously, he eases it back and peers into the deep hole that his been dug in the earth. Immediately his eyes rest on a human leg poking out from a blanket at the bottom. In shock and fright he slams closed the covering and cycles away for all he is worth, but soon his curiosity outweighs his fear and he returns to find that there is a small child in the pit.

Review by Brad Green:
A sun-drenched landscape, and a pit in which a chained, half-naked child cowers in darkness so that he cannot even blink without pain when a little light is let in. Boundless fields of corn, with a hidden underside where ants and snakes and spiders crawl and slither. A father and mother who would do anything for their own children, and who may be implicated in the kidnap of the young captive in the hole. A 10-year-old boy who rides his bicycle and soaks up the sun by day, and scribbles down fantastic flights of his imagination under the bedcovers at night.

Ostensibly a thriller, this marvellous film is in fact a coming-of age story, rich with contrasting metaphors that mirror the contradictions of life that we perceive as we lose our innocence. The most impressive element of Giuseppe Cristiano's performance as Michele is that his naive responses to new experiences, based on the pre-adolescent priorities and rational long forgotten by an adult audience, are so convincing. Pleasing his parents and not getting in trouble are all important, and secrets are special treasures. We have to understand his way of thinking or we won't buy the fact that he doesn't simply tell mum and dad of his discovery at its first instance.

Nearly everything is revealed through the young protagonist's eyes, and we are granted few insights beyond his own. The characters around Michele, most importantly his mother, father, sister and best friend, are explored only in terms of their interaction with him. The casting is perfect and the performances so sensitive that simple scenes of spare dialogue reveal the familial dynamics. There are at least two moments in which the very eye contact between Cristiano and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon (as Michele's mother) produce a heart-twisting tenderness; and we also appreciate the more nuanced relationship with his father, a mixture of respect, rebelliousness, love, fear and a weight of expectation that Michele will aspire to a preconceived ideal of manhood and a future as golden as the endless cornfields. When the camera rests a moment on three harvesters poised to cut a swathe through thousands of serried stalks, we immediately feel a foreboding, because we know full well that neither parental aspirations nor childhood innocence can withstand the crush of indifferent, external forces. We are also aware that the seminal moment in any child's life, when they come to the realisation that their parents aren't perfect, is falling on Michele in extraordinary and exaggerated circumstances.

Only twice does director Gabriele Salvatores (whose Mediterraneo won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1992) make the mistake of wringing more sentiment from a scene than necessary. Artificial portrayals of a sequence where the kidnapped child frolics during a brief period of liberty, and again the final few frames achieve a saccharine rather than poetic effect. This is especially a shame at the end, for it mars an otherwise majestic closing sequence.

On the other hand, the film's overall potency owes much to the fact that it does not attempt to pack a Bildungsroman into an hour-and-forty-minutes of cinema. The focus is on one dramatic episode in a child's life, as sharp a lesson as any 10-year-old could experience, which in revealing the ambiguities of life carries in itself a paradox of poignancy and beauty, like the first painful blinks of emerging from blackness into glorious sunlight.

Published February 17, 2005

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CAST: Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Dino Abbrescia, Giorgio Careccia, Giuseppe Cristiano, Mattia Di Pierro, Diego Abatantuono

PRODUCER: Marco Chimenz, Giovanni Stabilini, Maurizio Totti, Riccardo Tozzi

DIRECTOR: Gabriele Salvatores

SCRIPT: Niccolò Ammaniti (novel by Niccolò Ammaniti)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Italo Petriccione

EDITOR: Massimo Fiocchi

MUSIC: Ezio Bosso, Pepo Scherman


RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes




DVD RELEASE: February 16, 2005

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