Miramax Films </i>
Giuseppe Cristiano is superb in "Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared)."

"Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared)" requires a certain amount of patience, which seems to be in short supply among today's film audiences.

Which is not to say that the movie is slowly paced, or that it's boring, or even that it's unwatchable. It's certainly none of those things. However, this Italian-language import doesn't have any major action scenes, there are no huge effects sequences and what humor there is, is fairly low-key. This is a slow-to-build film; the first 80 or so minutes lay the groundwork before it gets to the meat of the story. But those who stick with it will be richly rewarded.

On the surface, this is a simple coming-of-age tale, but it's actually something trickier, a subtle morality play in disguise. The character with the moral dilemma is Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), an inquisitive 10-year-old who finds a little more than he expects while horsing around with friends in the countryside. After the others leave, Michele discovers a concealed pit in the courtyard and spies what appears to be a dead body.

He's more than a little freaked out, of course. But he returns the next day and discovers there is someone living down there, a young boy (Mattia di Pierro), who is suffering from dehydration and starvation.

Over the days that follow, Michele tries to aid the boy and persuades him to tell his story. Unfortunately, it appears that Michele's father (Dino Abbrescia) may be involved, along with some unsavory friends.

Disclosing any more would be unfair. But director Gabriele Salvatore lets the story unfold naturally, which makes it all the more effective.

Co-screenwriter Niccolo Ammaniti (who adapted his novel) has a real ear for dialogue. The child characters in the film talk and behave like actual children, instead of the cutesy, precocious adolescent so often seen in American films.

The whole thing could have come tumbling down with the wrong casting, but newcomer Cristiano is superb. Also, the film is beautiful to look at (kudos to cinematographer Italo Petriccione and his crew for so vividly capturing the magnificent Italian countryside).

"Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared)" is rated R for occasional use of strong sexual profanity, vulgar slang terms and racial epithets, violence (a shooting, as well as some violence against women and children), and brief gore. Running time: 101 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com