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Il Ladro de Bambini.

"Il Ladro di Bambini" takes its audience on a long trip, mostly by railroad, from Milan to Sicily. Gianni Amelio, a new director for most Americans, shows with telling detail how recent development projects obscure the natural beauty of the country.

Amelio takes potentially sensationalist material -- the movie opens with a mother arranging for her 11-year-old daughter's prostitution -- and patiently looks at the effects on the girl and her younger brother.

There is no big scene, no melodramatics, no contrived ending, just an incremental involvement by the title character, an initially reluctant policeman ("Why didn't they give this job to a social worker?"), and a slow dropping of barriers by the children. The movie recalls the great achievements of Italian neo-realism, though with less concern for leftist ideological pieties.

There were supposed to be two policemen, but the other goes AWOL to see his girlfriend, leaving the hero to cover up for him. This becomes crucial in the plot development, after the supervisor at the children's home where the youngsters are taken refuses to accept them when official papers reveal the girl's record. The policeman doesn't know where to take the kids but is afraid to consult his superiors because he doesn't want to reveal that his partner has split.

The children are incredibly natural. What is especially admirable is that they aren't prettied up, made instant icons for cut-rate compassion. They're difficult kids -- as should be: the girl constantly asks for water and is by turns sullen, falsely sophisticated and manipulative; the little boy resents his sisters as well as the policeman and insists on spending his own money on an exclusively potato chip diet -- money his mother had given him to get out of the house when the sister's customer was about to arrive.

Nor is the policeman turned into some humanist saint. He feels the situation is an imposition on him and has no particular talent for communication with such children. He'd like to get rid of them as quickly as possible, but he can't just drop them by the highway. He asks the girl -- the boy refuses to talk to him for a long time -- where her father is. He can hardly believe her when told that she doesn't know, that the man simply took off.

Italy is understandably getting a rough press these days for political corruption, but "Il Ladro di Bambini's" policeman makes clear that an instinctive sense of paternity is still alive.

A turning point comes as the hero decides to take the children for a stopover at his sister's place in southern Italy. He hides the real facts and tells her he's taking them to their family in Sicily. There is a reunion with his elderly grandmother, who instinctively makes friends with the little boy and shows him family photos, including a picture of the policeman as a little boy.

Unfortunately, this idyll is cut short when someone recognizes the girl from a picture in a tabloid paper. Although the trio has a fugitive moment of joy on a beach in Sicily, and the policeman talks vaguely of getting transferred so that he can visit the children more easily, at the end the youngsters are waiting for a bus that will take them to a home.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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