Dir: Gabriele Salvatores. Italy. 2003. 107mins.

An atmospheric, good-looking child's-view thriller set around a kidnapping in southern Italy during the 1970s, I'm Not Scared is Gabriele Salvatores 11th film. It is also his best: at last the Milanese director, whose previous films have been dragged down by a taste for grotesque, pseudo-Freudian posturings (Denti), uncritical Little Italy stereotypes (Mediterraneo) or sprawling, unresolved sci-fi scenarios (Nirvana), has exercised some restraint. Instead, here Salvatores limits himself to translating a strong story - Niccolo Ammaniti's best-selling novel of the same name - into strong visual form. Though there is the odd pasta-advert cliche in this evocation of a long hot summer in Italy's Deep South, this will not harm the film's chances abroad: I'm Not Scared generated a strong market buzz after its Berlinale competition screening, and looks likely to be the director's most successful export since Mediterraneo. Although two previous Ammaniti adaptations have bombed in Italy, this one is far stronger, and with the muscle of distributor Medusa behind it, should enjoy a decent home run.

The film opens on a group of children racing though a wheat field towards the blue line of the horizon. They live in a tiny rural hamlet somewhere in the south (the film was shot near Melfi in Calabria, but the place in the film is nameless and rootless, a forgotten scatter of rural houses). It's the end of summer, and Michele - the film's central character and, more often than not, its cinematographic point of view - leads the innocently bored life of a rural 10-year-old. Convincingly played by newcomer Giuseppe Cristiano, Michele has something of the Billy Elliot about him: he's an intelligent but tongue-tied loner in a no-hope environment, who keeps all his anger and visionary energy bottled up inside. When he discovers a boy his age who is being kept in a hole in the ground near an abandoned farmhouse, Michele begins to visit him and bring him food. To reveal more would be a major spoiler: suffice to say that the film manages its suspense well, jolting the audience a couple of times in classic thriller style.

Italo Petriccione's photography dwells on sun-soaked buildings and faces, keeping the horizon high in the frame, and plays nicely with the children's point of view, shuttling back and forth between the view up from the bottom of the kidnap victim's pit-prison and the view down from the rim. Music too is used to good effect, with sawing, classical strings, early 1970s Italian pop and a lilting Albinoni-like melody taking it in turns to underscore the brooding lull before the storm.

Diego Abatantuono, in his seventh outing for Salvatores, is menacing as a sweaty criminal with a beer gut and cheesy sunglasses; Dino Abbrescia is especially good as Michele's father, a weak man whose idea of bonding with his son is to suggest an arm-wrestling match.

There is something a little mannered about the exercise at times, especially in the ethereal rants - not to mention the wild-child look - of the boy in the pit. But then this is Salvatores; and there is enough that is real here - such as the pain of losing faith in one's parents at an early age or how those parents explain away their actions to themselves and each other - to carry the audience through to the strong finale. By then, it feels like a big, satisfyingly cinematic film - and that is no little achievement.

Prod cos: Colorado Film, Cattleya
It dist: Medusa
Int'l sales: Capitol Films
Prods: Maurizio Totti, Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz
Scr: Niccolo Ammaniti, Francesco Marciani, based on Ammaniti's novel of the same title
Cinematography: Italo Petriccione
Prod des: Ginacarlo Basili
Ed: Massimo Fiocchi
Music: Pepo Scherman, Ezio Bosso
Main cast: Giuseppe Cristiano, Mattia di Pierro, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Dino Abbrescia, Giorgio Careccia, Diego Abatantuono