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The Power of Innocence On the Big Screen

An interview with Italian director Carlo Carlei

By Marilynne S. Mason / November 3, 1993

MANY heroes in folklore, legend, myth, and story are called to adventure, given a great (often impossible) task to perform, and then sent on a ``hero's'' journey. They meet many dangers and sometimes temptations. But along the way, they also meet some great inspiration - a lady with a magic weapon to help them, perhaps. And in the end, the hero completes his task, saves whomever is in need, and finds glory in so doing. From Galahad to Bilbo Baggins (from J. R. R. Tolkien's ``The Hobbit''), the hero's journey follows similar patterns.

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Those patterns do not pass away. They emerge throughout the history of literature and other narrative art forms - especially film. They keep surfacing in our stories because they reflect moral truth and the human journey toward redemption.

When the hero is particularly pure of heart, his struggle is all the more exciting and poignant. The pure of heart, of course, are childlike because they are innocent. In Italian director Carlo Carlei's magnificent new feature film, ``Flight of the Innocent,'' the hero is a child. He follows in the path of many a great hero before him. But he is not so much called to adventure as forced into it.

Young Vito is a dreamer, a budding artist who sees everything going on around him - sees more than what the grown-ups know he sees. One night he notices blood on his father's shoe and soon after begins to realize his family's involvement in what has become almost an industry in Italy's poor South today - kidnapping of rich northern Italian children for ransom.

Vito's family is massacred by a rival clan, and Vito discovers the kidnap victim - a little boy his age - has also been murdered. Vito escapes to Rome and sees the kidnapped boy's mother pleading for his life on television. When the ransom money falls into his hands, he decides to make his way to the grieving mother's home to return the money.

The narrative propels itself forward with little dialogue and a host of cliffhanging moments in which Vito narrowly (and cleverly) escapes the clutches of the villains and saves a few innocents in the process. Toward the end, Vito has a kind of dream-vision of a wedding party where all his loved ones - including the kidnapped boy and his parents - have assembled at the table. Vito looks under the table at his father's boot. The blood is gone.

I heard director Carlei speak after the film was screened at the Denver International Film Festival last month, and in a telephone interview he continued the discussion about the film. ``Flight of the Innocent'' is his first feature-length film, although he has made a movie for television. He made ``Flight of the Innocent,'' he says, because he is from southern Italy and is deeply grieved by the terrible crime there. But he is also concerned that the vast majority of southern Italians are catching a bad rap from the North.

`I WANTED to tell a story from an objective point of view,'' says Carlei, ``a very neutral point of view without ideological or political or philosophical implications. I thought that having a child as a moral witness was helping me to attract the attention of people who don't know anything about this problem. He is the perfect go-between because he is so honest. I wanted him to symbolize the desire for redemption on the part of the people of southern Italy who are watching themselves be confused with the small minority of delinquents who are much easier to sell to the media. Most, 99 percent, of southern people are hard-working, very honest, very spiritual.''

Because he was born in the South, Carlei felt the discrimination and disdain of northerners when he went to live and attend film school in Rome. To him, Vito represents his own and his people's integrity.

``He has to redeem his entire family,'' Carlei says. ``This is what we [southerners] are feeling - we are paying for sins we didn't commit. We are misunderstood and underrated. So I wanted to use Vito's character as the herald who is carrying this message.''