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‘Il Ladro di Bambini’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 26, 1993


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

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In "Il Ladro di Bambini" ("Stolen Children"), 25-year-old carabiniere Antonio has to escort two children to a foster home. But the Italian police officer's straightforward task evolves into a circuitous disaster. In a trip that takes them north, then forces them south, Antonio and his preteen companions encounter universal hostility and suspicion. By the end of the wearying experience, however, the motley trio has formed an unspoken bond.

Italian director Gianni Amelio's movie -- which took the Grand Jury prize at Cannes last year -- nestles into the most unsentimental corner of the heart. It avoids over-endearing moments for a more downbeat -- but no less touching -- route. For Antonio's charges -- wordless 9-year-old Luciano (Giuseppe Ieracitano) and sullen 11-year-old Rosetta (Valentina Scalici) -- childhood is a distant memory. Their mother has just been arrested in Milan for forcing Rosetta into prostitution.

Antonio is charged with taking them to a religious home at Civitavecchia. But because of Rosetta's past, the children are refused entry. Antonio is obliged to take them to a Sicilian institution for wayward kids. Gradually, the long cross-country journey becomes a deepening, life-affirming experience. For a time, the three are blithely adrift on a veritable holiday. Sooner or later, however, they must return to the apathetic, heedless society that will make outcasts of them all.

Antonio (Enrico Lo Verso), a childlike spirit himself, seems to control the children merely by dint of his uniform. Gradually, tough-talking Rosetta, who has seen everything, begins to take command. At one point, to get her way, she even threatens to accuse Antonio of fondling her -- an ironic threat, given the false charges he will later face. Luciano starts talking, only to reveal a knowledge of lewd jokes and advice for picking up women.

Stark and understated, this movie has a slow-moving but affecting momentum, with cinematographer Renato Tafuri's sunlit images warming the unpromising road ahead. With its hard-core sense of realism, "Il Ladro di Bambini" intentionally recalls the Italian "neorealism" movies of the '40s and '50s. This period was characterized by low-budget movies with gritty, in-the-streets stories often featuring amateur actors. In fact, the title's similarity to the era's quintessential classic, "Ladri di Bicicletta" (English title: "Bicycle Thief") -- as well as the employment of nonprofessional child-performers Scalici and Ieracitano -- is hardly accidental. Director Amelio, who followed the improvisational dictates of his performers in "scripting" the movie, has created a gorgeous, unsweetened simplicity.

Obviously, a world of movies only like "Ladro" is a rather drab prospect. But it's refreshing to see an Italian film that breaks away from the "charming" exports that usually cross the waters. Finally, life is allowed to run its course without overly romantic tendering.

"Ladro" is preceded by "Swan Song," an adaptation of the Chekhov play by British director Kenneth Branagh. The 23-minute film, which stars John Gielgud, was nominated for an Academy Award in the short-film category this year.

IL LADRO DI BAMBINI (STOLEN CHILDREN) (Unrated) -- In Italian with subtitles.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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