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‘Il Ladro di Bambini’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 26, 1993


Gianni Amelio
Enrico Lo Verso;
Valentina Scalici;
Guiseppe leracitano
Not rated

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If "Il Ladro di Bambini," which translates from the Italian as "Stolen Children," were any smaller, it would be almost imperceptible. As it is, this fragile, beautifully modulated film by Gianni Amelio is like a single line drawn on a beach: there but for an instant, then gone, washed away by an incoming wave.

The movie, which is about two children from the slums of Milan and the soldier dispatched to escort them to their new foster home, is hauntingly spare and melancholy. Working according to the mostly neglected principles of "neo-realist" filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, Amelio uses nonprofessional actors and natural settings -- train stations, public beaches and fast-food joints -- to tell this story of an 11-year-old girl named Rosetta (Valentina Scalici) and her 9-year-old brother, Luciano (Giuseppe Ieracitano). After their mother is jailed for forcing Rosetta to become a prostitute, the children are ordered to accompany their escort, a sad-eyed policeman named Antonio (Enrico Lo Verso), to their new foster home.

It's meant to be an uneventful journey; so easy, in fact, that Antonio's sidekick runs off, leaving him to finish the mission on his own. But nothing goes right. First the nuns at the home refuse to accept Rosetta; then there are further delays when the boy becomes sick. Frustrated and nearly out of cash, Antonio would like nothing better than to get rid of these pitiful waifs. But the more time he spends with them, the greater his attachment to them grows. Soon he decides to show them something of life, and the three take off -- in direct violation of his orders -- on an impromptu vacation.

Composed entirely of delicately observed exchanges between characters, the film moves forward with little variation in its deliberate, sober pace. Still, Amelio creates an atmosphere of gravity that's moving even when nothing is happening.

Slowly, a silent bond develops between the children and their escort, who, it's suggested, may see something of his own childhood in their desolate circumstances. Acting as a kind of surrogate father for his charges, Antonio seems to come to life during their wandering trip; he even takes them to the place where he grew up, as if by osmosis they might borrow some of his happiness and normality as a boy.

Though only Lo Verso has had any experience as a professional actor, the performances are flawlessly subtle. The children especially seem to set up some kind of special emotional channel to the camera, as if they were communicating their feelings into the lens by telepathy. And Lo Verso, whose lean frame suggests a young Robert De Niro, has a face that is so expressive, he seems able to shift from delight to sorrow without ever changing expressions.

Though Amelio took his inspiration from a newspaper article, his story (written with the help of Sandro Praglia and Stefano Rulli) discovers the eloquence hidden within the commonplace. The power of "Il Ladro di Bambini" finds its source in the unremarkable and the forgotten.

"l Ladro di Bambini," in Italian with subtitles, is unrated.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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