Truth through the eyes of children

January 27, 1993

The Stolen Children
Directed by Gianni Amelio
With Enrico Lo Verso, Valentina Scalici and Giuseppe Ieracitano
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey

Vittorio de Sica's famous 1947 film The Bicycle Thieves told a story of the humiliation of a poor worker seen through the eyes of his son. It was set in an Italy still reeling from years of fascist dictatorship and brutal war. The Stolen Children is also seen largely through the eyes of children, but this time it is the children who are victims of an economically and emotionally bankrupt society.

The Stolen Children begins in a Milan slum, with the arrest of a mother for selling her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution. The girl, Rosetta, and her nine-year-old brother Luciano are given into the charge of two carabinieri to be taken to a children's home in Bologna. One of the policemen decides to stop off en route to spend some time with a girlfriend, leaving his serious and somewhat priggish young partner Antonio to escort the two children.

This is not a task Antonio particularly welcomes; he feels it's more a job for a social worker, and preferably a woman. The children are, not surprisingly, difficult — Rosetta alternates between sullenness and angry, provocative outbursts, and Luciano is asthmatic and almost completely uncommunicative. Antonio concentrates on getting his thankless task out of the way as quickly as possible.

However, the Catholic orphanage refuses to take the children because of Rosetta's "past". Antonio is forced to continue the journey to Sicily, where the children were born and where a home will take them. On the way, his attitude to the children gradually changes as he realises how traumatised they are by their experiences, and becomes angered by the continuation of their abuse by institutions which are supposed to help them.

He is particularly appalled by the way Rosetta is stigmatised by the prostitution she was forced into. Eventually a real trust and affection develops between the policeman and his two charges — but Antonio discovers that police rules and regulations don't mix with humane and caring behaviour.

Valentina Scalici and Giuseppe Ieracitano, neither of whom are professional actors, give outstanding portrayals of the two damaged children. Enrico Lo Verso is also impressive as the young policeman, who with his naivety and old-fashioned, upright honesty sometimes seems more innocent than the street-wise pair he is supposed to be protecting.

Director Gianni Amelio avoids Hollywood-style issue of the week sensationalism and sentimentality, giving instead an understated but devastating portrait of a country in a state of physical and moral collapse, where, in the director's own words, "values such as solidarity and dignity survive in the outsiders, the marginalised".

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