'Stolen Children' a mature exploration of bureaucratic indifference

April 09, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In the years just after World War II, Italian filmmakers shocked the world with a style of film since called "neo-realism." Under the guidance of such directors as Vittorio De Sica ("The Bicycle Thief") and Roberto Rossellini ("Open City"), Italian mIn the years just after World War II, Italian filmmakers shocked the world with a style of film since called "neo-realism." Under the guidance of such directors as Vittorio De Sica ("The Bicycle Thief") and Roberto Rossellini ("Open City"), Italian movies suddenly led the world with their scorching willingness to look hard at society, without the sentimentality and high gloss that had become the American studio signature, and document the crushing battle between the haves and have-nots. Slight dramas of the sort that could never interest a filmmaker -- the theft of a bicycle from a working man who needed it to get to work -- became unbearably intense.

Of course as myth-makers such as Federico Fellini and Michelanglo Antonioni took over in the '50s and '60s, Italian movies became more fanciful and less savage. But here's a throwback: Gianni Amelio's "Il Ladro di Bambini" ("Stolen Children"), opening today at the Rotunda. It's a corrosive examination of bureaucratic indifference to human agony. Yet it does so, all the more powerfully, in the tradition of the masters: without preachiness, without a lot of rhetoric and self-importance.

The story is deceptively simple. Milanese police raid a prostitute's apartment, haul her and her john away to prison; her two children are left in the uninterested hands of the bureaucrats, who declare that they should be placed in an orphanage in southern Italy. It falls to a largely apathetic young policeman (abandoned quickly by his partner) to escort them to this destination.

The journey that follows shows that the word "family" has to be stretched to define more than "Father Knows Best"; it shows how people can come to care about each other, to take each other's needs into consideration and offer just the slightest bit of mercy in a harsh world.

But not at first. The young policeman -- a member of Italy's crack paramilitary force, the Carabinieri, more like the state police -- is equally indifferent. It's just a job. As he travels by train, he is more pained than angered.

But what begins as irritation soon becomes affection. Amelio doesn't sentimentalize the young cop's intensifying empathy with the kids; to do so would obliterate the materials. It's done with great economy. Mostly, Antonio just watches and soon he sees what the world never has -- that Rosetta (Valentina Scalici) is a bright, beautiful child, forced into prostitution, but somehow having found the resilience to recover. Meanwhile, her damaged brother Luciano (Giuseppi Ieracitano), who doesn't speak, begins to blossom under the slightest whisper of attention.

When the policeman arrives at the orphanage, he finds a crew of frightened administrators who do not look at and do not see the two children; they only see a missing medical certificate and begin to lament the complexities in paperwork this will cause them.

Thus, impulsively, Antonio escapes with the kids. His ambitions are inchoate and a strength of the film is its refusal to truckle under to melodramatic formula. He has almost no goal and nothing is overdramatized. Things just happen, as if Antonio is making it all up as he goes along. He takes them to the beach: a simple thing, but no one has ever done such a thing for them before. He buys them food in a restaurant. He puts them to bed at night. He takes them to his family home, where they are rapidly swallowed in a teeming family celebration.

The film never preaches, but its lesson is manifest: that children need care and that institutions make lousy parents. Parents, it suggests, make the best parents.

@"Il Ladro di Bambini"

("Stolen Children")

Starring Enrico Lo Verso and Valentina Scalici.

Directed by Gianni Amelio.

Released by Goldwyn.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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