Il Ladro di Bambini (Stolen Children) is a small film that packs a mean wallop. You don't realize what a tour de force you're watching until midway through, and then not because of a Crying Game-like plot twist or a whiff of Scent of a Woman-ly bombast. Rather, Bambini wins you over with the telling detail, the subtle character trait deftly revealed, and with the simple beauty of a story that pits three outcasts, two of whom are children, against a dysfunctional and uncaring world.
In his first major motion picture role, Enrico Lo Verso shines as Antonio, a straight-arrow carabiniere charged with delivering a pair of Milanese street urchins to a religious children's home at Civitavecchia. Luciano, an asthmatic ten-year-old boy played by Giuseppe Ieracitano, and his sullen, world-weary eleven-year-old sister Rosetta, portrayed by Valentina Scalici, have been taken away from their mother following her arrest for selling the girl into prostitution.
Nothing goes right for poor Antonio. His carabiniere partner changes clothes and jumps off the train as it leaves the station in Milan, assuring Antonio that he can handle the simple task of delivering the youngsters by himself. Of course, the kids aren't about to make it easy. They fight with each other; Luciano refuses to eat anything but potato chips and gives the well-meaning policeman the silent treatment; and Rosetta matter-of-factly informs Antonio that if he tries to discipline her, she will publicly accuse him of fondling her private parts.
Things only get worse when the three finally arrive at their destination. While a repressed nun prattles on monotonously to an uninterested class about living life to the fullest and seizing the moment, the headmaster balks at taking in Rosetta because of her unseemly past. Fearful of getting his AWOL colleague into trouble, Antonio decides against calling his superiors for further instructions. Low on money, mad at his cohort, frustrated by the home's hypocrisy, and not exactly thrilled at the prospect of overseeing the nettlesome little creeps any longer than he has to, the discombobulated carabiniere sees no choice but to escort the luckless waifs to an institution for problem children in Sicily.
The improbable trio sets out on a journey that will cover as much psychic ground as it does geography. Forced to trust one another, a solidarity gradually develops among the travelers. Antonio is compelled to shed some of his naivete and innocence just as the kids rediscover theirs. Initially they pose as a family, both for the sake of convenience and to spare the kids as much embarrassment as possible (an Italian scandal magazine has published the lurid story of Rosetta and her mother, complete with a photo of the eleven-year-old hooker on the cover). But the ersatz clan makes the calamitous mistake of believing that Antonio can somehow shield the kids from their destiny. When, with the tragic inevitability of real life, it all falls apart, the effect is devastating.
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Gianni Amelio, who also directed 1990's Academy Award-nominated Porte Aperte (Open Door), has said that Il Ladro di Bambini expresses his belief that modern Italy is a country where values such as solidarity and compassion have fallen by the wayside. The central idea of the film crystallized for him when he read a true-life news account of an eight-year-old girl whose mother had turned her into a prostitute; a poignant photograph of the little girl walking down the street holding a policeman's hand became the launching-off point for the movie. But Bambini's messages have universal appeal. As the sad saga of Katie Beers proves, the story could have been lifted just as easily from any U.S. newspaper as from an Italian one.
Hailed by European critics as the film that reawakened Italian cinema, Bambini practically swept the David di Donatello Prizes (the Italian version of the Academy Awards) and reeled in the Grand Jury Prize at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. These are heady accomplishments for a movie starring two children with no prior acting experience, a film partially rewritten on the fly and shot in a style (Italian neo-realism A time for you cinema majors to dust off your dog-eared copies of Arthur Knight's The Liveliest Art and look up Rossellini's Open City or De Sica's The Bicycle Thief) abandoned decades ago by filmmakers.
Bambini merits every laurel. It's the rare movie that prominently features children and manages completely to circumnavigate the twin nemeses of cute precociousness and cheap sentimentality. Pixote and Salaam Bombay!, both outstanding films, come to mind. The performances of the thirteen-year-old Scalici and her twelve-year-old counterpart Ieracitano are so true as to beg the question of whether they're acting at all, or just running on instinct. Either way, you have to hope King Culkin took notes.
And Lo Verso is nothing short of a revelation. By turns gullible, wise, clueless, paternal, and ultimately disillusioned, the novice actor's malleable features facilitate a shifting feast of nuance and character. With the raising of an eyebrow or the curl of the corner of a lip, Lo Verso lets the audience in on Antonio's every thought. His flustered carabiniere's intrinsic dignity in the face of an increasingly decayed and inhumane world takes on heroic proportions. It's a graceful, assured performance that anchors a winsome, heart-wrenching beauty of a film.