STOLEN CHILDREN (IL LADRO DI BAMBINI) (Italy, 1992) ****
The film, excellent in its own right, becomes sublime when compared to the ridiculousness of so much summer screen fare.
"Stolen Children" is neo-neorealistic. Its Italian title echoes the neorealist masterpiece "Bicycle Thieves" of 1948, but you can see why "Children's Thief," lacking the right euphony in English, was not used.
The movie also recalls others of the Italian neorealist "school" of the 1940s, but with complete originality and serious contemporaneity rather than trendiness.
At the 1992 Cannes Festival it was received with thunderous applause and moist eyes, and was for many critics the top contender for the Golden Palm. This went to the Danish "The Best Intentions" but "Stolen Children" did garner the runner-up, Grand Jury Prize.
It has also won the Felix Award for Best European Film of 1992. Immensely successful in Italy, it swept the David di Donatello Prizes, for Best Italian Film, director, producer, editor, music plus two special prizes for the two young leads.
"Il Ladro di Bambini" is a terrific road movie. Antonio (Lo Verso), a nice young carabiniere (the carabinieri are the paramilitary police) is ordered to take to a Children's Home Rosetta (Scalici) an 11-year-old girl whose mother was arrested for prostituting her. This horrible situation is shown in unsensational, allusive ways.
Along with Rosetta comes Luciano (Ieraticino), her 10-year-old sullen, silent and asthmatic brother.
Antonio's fellow-carabiniere defaults. The unwilling young man is stuck with the job. Rosetta and Luciano are not easy customers. The kids are fatherless, from one of the many southern Italian families that have migrated to the industrial North. They are profoundly traumatized, the boy hates (or so he thinks) the girl for what she had been, the girl is defiant and aggressive, both are pathetic wrecks.
Circumstances give the odd trio a longer trip than expected. From Milan to Bologna, from Bologna to the Home in Civitavecchia (near Rome), the untrained Antonio finds himself performing a social worker's task.
In Civitavecchia the nuns find Rosetta unacceptable. Antonio, on the spot again, now must trudge with his wards all the way down to a Home in Sicily -- via his native Calabria (the region at the foot of Italy) and the straits of Messina.
At first resentful and unwilling though almost always mild-mannered, Antonio soon changes from a cop with a burden to a guardian angel and surrogate father.
The trip is one of personal, social and political discoveries. It is a trip of few words, without theatrics or sentimentalism. The film remains throughout sober to a fault, never deviating from verismo.
Through Antonio's quiet understanding and sympathy, the gradual, difficult loosening up and "taming" of the kids is simply a marvel. All episodes, scenes or shots are perfect, never gratuitous, artificial or redundant.
This voyage through Italy is real and true in every detail, from streets to buildings, from people encountered in big cities or provincial places. It is also a powerful description and critique of contemporary, life, mores and attitudes, but always in a minor, warm key.
The outwardly simple movie is complex, unshowy, nuanced and unpretentious. It is futile to mention its high points, since every scene is a high point and every detail menas something and touches -- without ever manipulating the viewer.
This perfection includes the acting and the film-making techniques. The children, both non-professionals, are totally convincing. Rosetta's behavior runs the entire gamut from streetwise woman-child to a "normal" though ever-sad 11-year-old. Luciano's mutism eventually mutates into sub-teen vivacity.
As Antonio, Lo Verso communicates his empathy, sympathy and kindness with extraordinary reserve. When, near the end, he gets into trouble with police authorities for stretching out the journey, he too becomes as inarticulate as a child.
Lo Verso must be the hottest new actor in Italy today. Un-pretty, ungainly, long-nosed, a bit saturnine, with a a face that registers every micro-change with quiet, whisper-like eloquence, he is a dark Calabrese who reminds you that Arabs passed through South Italy many centuries ago.
"Stolen Children" is his first major movie part. Since then, he has had big, very different, but always super-sensitive roles in Ettore Scola's political "Mario, Maria and Mario" and in Ricky Tognazzi's "Bodyguards," one of the best films at the 1993 Cannes Festival.
The photography is as outstanding as the players. The camera always knows when to use a close-up, a medium or a long shot, when to move and when to keep still. And while the structure and the editing must have been minutely calculated, they conceal their skills and make you forget their virtuosity.
"Stolen Children" is at least as good as any film shown locally in the last 12 months. For me it is the best, a triumph of flawless realism that can be appreciated by the widest possible public.