Sometimes the difference in the cinematic styles of two countries is as simple as geography. Has anyone ever seen a Scottish film that wasn't drained of color and shot through with rain and fog? Thanks to Scotland's oblique reception of sunshine, they have a national cinema suffused with substance abuse and gloomy, disaffected violence. Italian filmmakers, on the other grossly generalizing hand, have the benefit of the best light on earth, and we get movies that celebrate changeless rusticity, mischievous little boys, nubile peasant girls and ineffectual but good-hearted (and never gay) priests.
Such contrasts are on display in the Scottish Young Adam and the Italian I'm Not Scared, two films scheduled to open this Friday in area theaters. While the former film has a moment or two of sunshine, the latter has a picturesque rainstorm that ends as daintily as it begins. But aside from the facile contrasts, each film shows a surprising mix of freshening foreign influences: Young Adam, working from a novel by the Scottish beat writer Alexander Trocchi, resembles a French novel as much as a film that nods to French influences like Vigo's L'Atalante, Renoir's La Bete Humaine and some early Truffaut films. Meanwhile, I'm Not Scared, in its evocation of childhood fantasy, terror and solidarity against the corruption of adulthood, is nothing if not Spielbergian.
The better film of the two is Young Adam in which Ewan McGregor stars as Joe, a charmingly sullen barge worker who plies the canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow with an older married couple and their young son. His employers Les and Ella (played by the reliably intense Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton) are a hardworking but joyless pair: Les finds release in his guitar and Ella in her increasingly brazen couplings with Joe.
For Joe's part, Ella is only one of his many female conquests in the film (although "conquest" isn't quite the right word since women seem to surrender to Joe's quiet, silent and hushed charm whenever he walks into view). In a series of flashbacks, we learn that he was once an aspiring writer who sponged off a girlfriend (Emily Mortimer) while producing little in the way of literature.
The film opens with a mystery: Joe and his boss Les haul in the body of a drowned and nearly naked young woman. After turning the corpse over to the authorities, Joe and Les continue on their aquatic peregrinations while following the ensuing police investigation in the papers. It emerges that Joe knows more than he's letting on about the missing woman, but he keeps silent even as an innocent man is charged with her murder. As we watch with mounting frustration, it becomes clear that Joe is not one who behaves in what is typically considered the civilized way.
Young Adam was published as a novel in 1954 and is the principal claim to fame of its author Alexander Trocchi, who went into steady decline afterward and died in London in 1984 as an impoverished heroin addict. To watch McGregor's Joe is to witness a literary type from another world and another literary sensibility, one that was produced in the 1940s and '50s by the likes of James Cain, Celine, Albert Camus, Henry Miller and Francoise Sagan. The protagonists of these books were fashionably alienated from polite society, dissolute in their pursuit of sensual pleasure and self-righteous in their superiority to the corrupt order that had given them the Holocaust, the Cold War and the nuclear family. Succored only by sex, heroin and free jazz, they were, in short, existential.
So the experience of watching the dispassionately amoral Young Adam is an agreeable departure from the cautious P.C. moralizing that contemporary artists typically do. Young Adam, which is rated NC-17, has plenty of matter-of-fact fornication, and there's one scene of rough sex that is quite unsettling. However one feels about this violent erotic confrontation, the filmmakers' refusal to give us moral comfort forces us to confront the scene ourselves. Dig it.
If Young Adam is drunk on the debauched philosophies born in the cafes and bookstalls of St. Germain, the Italian thriller Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared) looks to Hollywood for a more audience-friendly influence. However, it also combines some of the worst tendencies of mainstream American filmmaking with the worst indulgences of Italian cinematographers. Call the result Spielberghini: sentimental eye candy in which a heroic young lad fights evil in the golden, swaying summer landscapes of southern Italy.
It's a shame, actually, that this movie devolves into formula because its opening scenes are seductive, ominous and flat-out scary. Based on a novel by the young Italian author Niccola Ammaniti, we're introduced to a group of preadolescent kids in a tiny Italian farming village. In the best Italian neo-Realist tradition, the kids in the cast are all first-time amateur actors who were cast locally. Although the film establishes some strong personalities in quick strokes, we're really only interested in one boy, Michele.
Michele establishes his decency in an early scene and thus becomes the lonely Spielbergian hero, the spunky kid who uncovers a secret that necessarily forces him to revolt against the adults in his life. Although I'm Not Scared is the sort of film that forces reviewers to decide what plot secrets should be preserved, it's safe to say that the extent to which this film resembles E.T.: The Extraterrestrial in its plot, characters and emotional trajectory, is rather striking.
Although the film finally spirals into shameless emotional pornography, the plot is based on a political phenomenon from the 1970s and early '80s that grew out of the terrorism that plagued central and southern Europe. Although this often took the form of overeducated and heavily armed radical groups like the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof, less ideologically-motivated (and perhaps more honest) opportunists also took part in kidnappings that targeted the wealthy elites of northern Italy.
But such political underpinnings end up feeling like window-dressing. Although there's an ancient children's nightmare--that our parents are actually monsters--at the core of I'm Not Scared, the film ultimately caves to a dishonest ending that insults us as it tries to move us to tears.
By way of contrast, Young Adam offers little comfort save for its honesty. But sometimes that's enough.
As perhaps the last and most famous beat poet declaimed, "If you live outside the law you must be honest."