Gabriele Salvatores's I'm Not Scared, a new Italian import, is set in the tiniest of Sicilian villages in the late 1970s. A handful of families live in a cluster of houses and while the bored, short-tempered adults busy themselves close to home the kids spread out into the ravishing landscape. The kids play in a pack and we first see them running through fields of blindingly crisp grain. The natural world is a major character in the movie--we're aware of the grain-covered hills under the sky, of rapacious birds that come on in changing shifts by day and night, of reptiles and amphibians in the dirt roads, of insects swarming in the earth, of domesticated animals that aren't anything like friendly cartoon characters. (Salvatores accomplishes this without going in for the pathetic fallacy that the great Victorian art historian John Ruskin identified and objected to.)
The children blend into nature, which is glorious but also harsh: they frolic and then turn to games that have a tinge of sadism (e.g., picking on a fat girl by making her expose herself). This does not, in the event, distinguish them from their parents. We register the paternal generosity and the maternal bounty and protectiveness, but also how these qualities shade into darker negatives. The difference between the kids and the parents is that technology seems to have made the parents so greedy for things they can't have they no longer take any pleasure in the wonders around them (they seek more unnatural resources). You look at these stultified, restless rural folk and see the salt of the earth having lost its savor.
The movie, adapted by Niccolo Ammaniti and Francesca Marciano, from Ammaniti's book, is about the coming to awareness of dark-haired, ten-year-old Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), who discovers a blond boy just his age chained in a hole by an abandoned farmhouse where the children play. Michele has a budding nobility that the other kids lack, perhaps brought out by his custodianship of his myopic little sister, but he doesn't spot or comprehend a crime when he first comes across it. The movie is about the dawning of Michele's consciousness of what is happening around him (which involves understanding how the adults in the town, including his beloved father, are responsible for putting that boy in the hole), and then the birth of his conscience, which, once his eyes are opened, requires appropriate action. The movie thus uses a crowd-pleasing crime plot to trace the articulation of a child's mind. It's both expansive and focused, a triumph.