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Innocent on the Lam

After seeing Flight of the Innocent, you won't be surprised to learn that Italian director Carlo Carlei has already signed a deal to make movies in Hollywood. Carlei, 31, has expressed admiration for the "earth-toned poetry" of such anti-studio films as The Tree of Wooden Clogs, and, given Flight's shades-of-brown cinematography, that makes sense. But the movie's storyline and general sensibility are far more American -- Spielbergian, to be precise -- than they are Old World. So is this film's success the strongest sign yet that European filmmaking is dead? Oh, probably not. But maybe we should prepare the last rites, just in case.

Before the film's first images appear, we're informed via a lengthy written introduction that in impoverished southern Italy, kidnapping is so frequent that it constitutes a cottage industry. Got that entrepreneurial spirit? Then go snatch a rich man's kid. The gangs keep their day jobs as shepherds and subsistence farmers, and if they hold a particularly lucrative child prisoner, they are subject to attack from other clans who would like to get their hands on the child and the ransom he will fetch.

The film opens with a shootout between two families, one of whom holds the most celebrated and lamented of the missing children. This family is almost wiped out by a rival group; only one eleven-year-old boy, Vito (Manuel Colao), survives the massacre, and his enemies pursue him to Rome as he runs for the protection of an uncle. They want him to tell where the valuable kidnapped boy is hidden. This chase across southern Italy fills 90 percent of the film.

And the hunt, which is slightly reminiscent in theme and pacing of Spielberg's debut, The Sugarland Express, is nicely handled. Carlei tells his story with a minimum of dialogue, letting the images speak for themselves. And as the lead character, Colao is an angelic, compelling figure. But the violence here is crude and offputting, not least because we're subjected to the shooting of old women and children. Maybe the clans/gangs of southern Italy are this cruel, but these scenes feel like Carlei is exploiting their nastiness, rather than examining it. Some of the deaths are so crudely handled, and some of the villains are so coarsely drawn, that they take us back to Carlei's one true European predecessor, Sergio Leone.

The filmmaking here will carry you along just fine. But if you're looking for traces of that old Italian soul, you'll be disappointed.

-- David Theis

 
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