We watched Gabriele Salvatore’s excellent Io Non Ho Paura at the weekend (amongst other things – Motorcycle Diaries was another). I’d been meaning to watch it for an age – either Mark Kermode on the radio or Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian had raved about it when it was released in cinemas about three years ago, and we’ve had a copy (two, in fact) of the Italian release at work for a couple of years – but simply hadn’t got round to it until now.
The first thing it reminded me of was Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Malick, in theory, is one of my favourite directors, but the paucity of his material, and the overlong pretension of his later work (particularly The Thin Red Line) makes it difficult to be a serious fan. Badlands and Days of Heaven are both pretty-much perfect, though.
Visually Io Non Ho Paura echoes the lavish cornfield cinematography of Days of Heaven; but rather than the romantic twilight ambience of that film, it’s a childhood dream that takes place in broad daylight and strong washes of primary colours – the yellow corn, the blue sky, a boy’s red t-shirt. The southern Italian landscape is as much a member of the cast as the awesome Giuseppe Cristiano; in fact on one level you could see the film as a romance between Cristiano’s character (Michele) and the fields through which he rides his bike, the trees in which he lazes above the scorching earth, and the abandoned stone barns and outhouses where he finds adventure. Where Malick’s film is (visually) all about grieving for the closing of the day, about ruminations and remembrances, Salvatore’s is about the sensual joy of the present; the high sun, the cooling breeze. About being a boy in a summer with no cares.
Except, of course, that there are cares and there are worries, and there are also terrible, strange, senseless (to a child) crimes. Michele discovers a boy chained-up in a hole in the ground, half-starved, blinded by sunlight and so delirious he thinks he is dead…
Io Non Ho Paura is one-third beatific childhood escapism, one third grown-ups being assholes, and one third mystery in a deep, dank hole. So, in a roundabout way, is Pan’s Labyrinth, which is the other film that Io Non Ho Paura reminded me of. Except, of course, that it predates Del Toro’s Franco/fantasy film by about three years. Both films have wonderful child leads of around the same age, both are seen almost exclusively through that child’s eyes, both hinge on daydreaming and the way daydreams make terrible adult events and crimes seem almost banal… In fact, so similar are the films that both child leads are shot by their (real or assumed) fathers in the final moments of each, whether with cold-hearted deliberation or by panicked accident.
Io Non Ho Paura is certainly the less phantasmagorical of the two; the daydreams of the lead are of a Boy’s Own Adventure ilk, rooted in noirish kidnappings and ransom notes; while those of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth are concerned with fairies, mystical tasks and magic spells, less absent-minded fantasy than desperate escapism. It’s also the less brutal; the crimes in Salvatore’s film are perpetrated by bumbling, jealous adults, victims of the system rather than its enforcers. Michele, we are led to think, or hope, does not die from the gunshot inflicted upon him by his father, who is not a torturer or fascist – just a poor man with half a brain who can think enough to dream himself out of poverty but not enough to do it by any means other than criminal. Ofelia, in the real world, has no hope but to die at the close of Pan’s Labyrinth, even if she is reborn a princess in her fading dream.
My instinct would have been to say that I preferred Del Toro’s film – fantastical realism being theoretical catnip to my cinema tastes – but I’m unsure. There was something in the gentle nature of Salvatore’s film that made the drama, when it came, seem almost more poignant than the desperate, unremitting nastiness of that in Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Ofelia’s daydreams are frightening – the giant toad, the Pale Man and even the ancient, rickety faun himself are all fearsome apparitions, less an escape from the unpleasantness of Captain Vidal than a displacement. Perhaps Io Non Ho Paura creates a better balance; perhaps its freshness to me is a boon. No matter – both are wonderful films, and so similar in so many ways that I’m surprised not to have seen mention of Io Non Ho Paura in relation to Pan’s Labyrinth.