The Power of Innocence On the Big Screen

An interview with Italian director Carlo Carlei

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.

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.''

Wherever there is poverty there is crime, Carlei points out. Many people think they have the right to do wrong. Many are tempted. But many more resist. ``You won't have a perfect world even if you eliminate poverty,'' he says. ``Human nature is not perfect. But it doesn't mean we don't have to do our best to achieve the best possible conditions and give people better possibilities to start with.''

``Vito is normal,'' Carlei says, asserting that integrity, purity, and goodness are natural to him, as to all of us. ``The exception is the father. I would be very scared to live in a world in which Vito is the exception. I think boys are pure, [children] are honest until you teach them to be dishonest or corrupted by the materialism of the world.''

If all of us could recover the uncorrupted in ourselves, he says, the world would be better, our individual lives would be better. He points out how audiences respond to Vito, how happy they are to have something as important as integrity communicated at an emotional level. He says that the problem with the film industry today is that so often it underrates the capacities of the public to respond to ideas and emotions.

``My movie works on an emotional level,'' he says. ``I didn't want to be self-conscious and intellectual. It is entertaining - it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. They are involved in this movie, and they are in love with this boy. They understand what he is trying to achieve.... I tried not to sentimentalize it. But I don't know if I succeeded 100 percent.''

Carlei wants to make movies that touch the important issues of the heart and the spirit. But if they are not entertaining, people won't watch them.

``It is very trendy to say, `I'm just a director, I can't change the world.' Of course, I am just a director and I can't change the world. But this doesn't mean I don't care about what is going on in the world around me. I am not a robot; I am a human being before I am a director. I know it's very trendy to talk about making entertainments, but I don't think its very modest. I'm trying to come back to some modesty. I'm like everybody else - I have opinions, I'm happy, I'm unhappy.... I could be a pain, or I could be a sweet guy.

``Movies are, first of all, emotions through visions. I want to make movies, and in order to make movies, my movies must make money. If I would like to express myself without taking care of the audience, I would rather write a poem. But this doesn't mean the audience is always right. Stanley Kubrick's `Barry Lyndon' never made money. So what?

``Of course, it's great when you work for two years on a movie and someone recognizes how beautiful [it is] ... but you know, the goal and the quest is to stay cool and understand that you have to go ahead and be the first judge of yourself and try to maintain your sensitivity and integrity without being influenced [by praise or blame].''

Still, the audience is more intelligent than many filmmakers suppose, he says. Filmmakers need to keep trying to communicate important issues, or movies will just get worse and worse.

``If you give the audience something a little more stimulating, you are improving their perception,'' says Carlei. ``This is good for everybody.''

``Flight of the Innocent'' has been well received all over the world. Audiences are touched by the child's believable heroism. His journey, though fraught with danger, is bright with intelligent responses to that danger. Young Vito is a hero, but no magic swords or fairy princesses help charm the dragon on his journey.

His heroism lies in the rejection of the cruelty and corruption of his own family, in his struggle to try to make amends for his family, and in his yearning for a mother. It is a hard journey, harder than Galahad's. But worthy. Very worthy.

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