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The Stolen Children
cast: Enrico Lo Verso, Valentina Scalici, Giuseppe Leracitano

director: Gianni Amelio

114 minutes (15) 1992
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Recipient of a Cannes Jury grand prize upon its release in 1992, Il Ladro di Bambini here has its title translated as The Stolen Children rather than the more literal 'the child-thief' presumably so as to make the film sound less like a horror title or a fictional biopic about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's child-catcher. Sadly this film is neither of these things, instead it is an eminently worthy and sentimentalist piece of early 1990s neo-realist cinema that is all about helping children get in touch with their feelings. Despite clearly having its heart in the right place and having a few ideas that come close to enlivening the piece, The Stolen Children is ultimately a predictable and un-ambitious piece of European cinema that begins, middles and ends nowhere particularly interesting or important.

Antonio is a carabinieri who, along with a colleague has been sent to escort two children to an orphanage an overnight train ride away from Milan. Young, inexperienced and not particularly outgoing, Antonio quickly finds himself all alone with his two charges after his colleague decided to get off at the next station. Sullen and suspicious, the children are recently removed from the care of their mother who lived for two years off of the earnings from pimping out her nine-year-old daughter. Given the girl's history, the religious orphanage cooks up an excuse for not taking her, fearing that her worldliness might infect the other pupils.

Unable to seek further instructions from headquarters and still lumbered with the two children, Antonio decides to take them to an orphanage in Sicily. Along the way he bonds with the children, getting them to come out of their shells and trust him despite the young boy's near autism and the girl's understandably near pathological distrust for men. When the little group arrive in Sicily, they are surprised to hear that people have been combing the country looking for them as after the children did not turn up at the first orphanage, everyone assumed that Antonio had kidnapped them. The film ends with the group spending one final night on the road together, sleeping in the car in front of the orphanage Antonio has been ordered to deposit them at.

The mostly Italian neo-realist school of cinema flourished during the post-war years where the rhetoric and ideology of the Mussolini years prompted Italian directors to seek out a more natural and authentic way of depicting reality. Director Gianni Amelio was clearly born too late to be a proper neo-realist but it is plain to see that between the use of largely inexperienced actors, the location shooting and the clear social context, this project owes a lot to neo-realism. In fact, the protagonist's name - Antonio - and the film's title both seem to be direct references to what is arguably the masterpiece of Italian neo-realist cinema Vittorio di Sica's 1948 Ladri di Biciclette.

The film's title has an intentional double meaning as while Antonio is being hunted as a kidnapper (a child-thief), what he is actually stealing is the children's right to have a proper childhood between the misery of their abusive mother and the doubtless coming misery of the orphanage referred to only as 'the institution'. Antonio does all of this unconsciously as initially he has no idea of how to deal with the children or even to talk to them, his initial response to the young girl opening up to him about the abuse she suffered ("people tell me... 'You have a beautiful mouth'") is anger and fear. However, as time moves on he realises that the children need to eat properly and have a shower and he takes them to his family home in the midst of a celebration, where the children can forget who they are and be normal children, until a woman recognises them from the lurid newspaper stories. This movement from emotional closure to openness is portrayed via a movement from the run down city to the beach and the sunshine. The ending leaves is unclear as to whether Antonio intends to actually take the children to the 'institution' but the implication is that he'd rather go back on the run.

Intelligently conceived and well directed, if slowly paced, The Stolen Children feels desperately pedestrian. Despite some good performances from the inexperienced cast, the drama is never anything more than entirely predictable. Indeed, the second they all step on the train it is obvious where we are headed and exactly how we are getting there. This is art house cinema as genre, formula and very much by the numbers. The addition of the prostitution subplot occasionally threatens to make things interesting as the girl reacts suspiciously when a friend of Antonio's offers her a tape and suggests she come over and pick which one she wants to keep and later Antonio's relative tries to keep the girl away from the other children because of her past.
Both of these areas suggest interesting depths not only to the psychology of abuse but social reaction to stories of abuse but Amelio never sticks in one place long enough to explore anything in depth. In fact, when Antonio tells the children to 'hurry up' for the hundredth time, one can't help wonder if the director is not talking directly to the audience.

All in all, a predictable and un-ambitious work that has little of interest to say about the subject matter. Too shallow to function as a proper drama and too lightweight to work as a think piece, The Stolen Children is a disappointment.

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