New from overseas: shock and philosophy

Italy's new 'I'm Not Scared,' investigates the puzzle of a boy imprisoned in a hole in ground.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been a good year for American movies, but distributors are importing an impressive range of international films as well. This week brings two highly contrasting items.

"I'm Not Scared," from Italian director Gabriele Salvatores, begins with a daunting enigma.

Playing near his small Sicilian village, a boy named Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) stumbles on a secret in the countryside: another child, miserable and speechless, passing an agonized existence in a dark, dank hole.

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Does the little boy live there? Is he a modern Kaspar Hauser who's never seen civilization or his fellow humans? Or is some sinister scheme at work?

Michele keeps his discovery hidden for a while, then starts trying to figure it out - with results that are perhaps more frightening than the secret itself, suggesting that grownups from the area are responsible for the wild child's plight and hope to profit from it.

This might sound like a Hollywood thriller, and I won't be surprised if American producers remake "I'm Not Scared" one of these days. If so, they'll be hard pressed to top the Italian original, which is cleverly structured and smartly acted.

Its only real problem is a common one for stories that start so mysteriously: The more we learn what's really going on, the less tantalizing the mystery itself becomes. This said, it's hard to find a current release that so effectively teases the mind and emotions.

"Twentynine Palms" was written and directed by France's Bruno Dumont, a former philosophy professor who sparked controversy when his 1999 murder mystery "Humanité" won multiple prizes - after lots of impatience and derision from viewers - at the Cannes film festival.

Mr. Dumont still isn't scared to provoke audiences both intellectually and physically. Filmed in the American southwest, "Twentynine Palms" is a two-character drama about a young photographer and his girlfriend, who travel into the desert looking for isolated camera subjects.

Based in a low-rent motel, they make long day trips in their all-terrain car, pausing for frequent sex, intermittent quarrels, and occasional run-ins with locals who resent their intrusion.

Most of their activity is banal, but this is part of Dumont's preparation for a climax that's as harrowing as it is unexpected.

While many will find the movie dull and distasteful in the extreme, it has deeply serious ideas at its core - the same subtly philosophical and implicitly theological concerns that mark Dumont's earlier films, which also criticize people who live entirely in the physical realm of existence at the expense of mental and spiritual perceptions.

Dumont's methods are radical, but there's a fascinating method to his seeming cinematic madness.

• Both films have R ratings. "I'm Not Scared" contains violence. "Twentynine Palms" contains explicit sex and violence.

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