National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

'The Agronomist' and 'I'm Not Scared' celebrate the value of courage


The Agronomist is one of the most exciting documentaries I have ever seen, and one that is especially timely. Director Jonathan Demme, best known for “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” met his film’s subject, Jean Dominique, at Radio Haiti in the late ’80s as Demme was pondering the relation between the arts and Haiti’s long, painful search for democracy. Dominique, a soil expert who studied in Paris, had made the radical decision to use his radio station to reach the majority of his poor countrymen by broadcasting largely in Creole. Demme was drawn to this charismatic personality with a passion for freedom, a man who spoke to his fellow Haitians of achieving a genuine sense of community.

After Dominique and his collaborator-wife (the equally courageous Michèle Montas) were forced into exile in New York in the early ’90s, Demme conducted extensive interviews that provide the background for this documentary. Later, he filmed Dominique’s triumphant return to Haiti and collected footage of repression in the countryside, the day-to-day operation of the radio station, Dominique’s family background and the hillside homes of Haiti’s elite families. The final product is a wonderful mixture of archival material (for example, the U.S. occupation in the ’20s), glimpses of frenzied religious devotion and even a shot of the Coast Guard turning back would-be refugees hoping to reach the United States. Demme intersperses a running chronology of events in Haiti in the ’90s with Dominique’s spellbinding condemnation of both Duvalier’s brutality and behind-the-scenes U.S. control.

“The Agronomist” projects a buoyant spirit despite the fact that Dominique was gunned down by thugs in December 2000. This buoyancy can be partially accounted for by the film’s frequent touches of humor, the charm of Dominique’s smile, his deep conviction that the flame of freedom can never be extinguished and the evident generosity of a captivating personality. As Montas said at her husband’s funeral, “Fire radiated from him. He stole it from Prometheus.”

Demme indicates the importance of Dominique’s discovery of the power of radio, and his film is a tribute to what information-driven broadcasting can accomplish for a downtrodden society. “The Agronomist,” which was completed before the present U.S. military occupation of Haiti, should induce viewers to become better informed -- for example, by reading Paul Farmer’s “Haiti’s Wretched of the Earth” in Tikkun, May-June 2004. Demme does not treat Aristide as a hero or pretend to deal with all the political complexities in Haiti, but he forces us to think of U.S. responsibility for Haiti’s ongoing destitution and absence of human rights.

I’m Not Scared, the new Italian film of Gabriele Salvatores, has powerful moments of suspense woven into an upbeat story about a boy who makes a frightening discovery while wandering around an abandoned farmhouse. Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) is a fifth-grader with an innate sense of justice who comes to realize that the tiny creature at the bottom of a pit is in fact Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), a boy his own age, emaciated and in deep shock. Filippo is so confused that at first he believes Michele is his guardian angel. Michele’s catechetical education has left him ignorant of what a guardian angel might be, but he is determined to do everything he can to aid the victim.

Director Salvatores is faithful to the successful novel by Niccolò Ammaniti (who also wrote the screenplay), which underlines the shortsightedness of male chauvinism in southern Italy. Its action reveals a sharp contrast between Michele and the bully of the group he plays with, and emphasizes his father’s inability to share any activity with his son except arm wrestling. His mother is fundamentally powerless but fights bravely when her son is attacked.

Michele’s secret discovery is central to the story, but photographer Italo Petriccione’s best work emerges in sequences that follow the boy and his friends racing exultantly through golden cornfields as the camera discovers small animals rustling underneath. Although very young children might be momentarily frightened by the boy in the pit, Michele makes an appealing hero for young and old.

“I’m Not Scared” is especially effective in presenting its action from the child’s point of view. Michele is always kind to his younger sister and shows his sense of justice by interfering with a humiliating punishment the group bully is about to administer to an older girl. His most dangerous assignment comes later, when his father brings some suspicious characters into the house: The boy even has to share his room with one thug, while his little sister gets to sleep with their parents. He is especially upset when a friend reveals his secret discovery because by then Filippo has become Michele’s friend -- and his responsibility.

“I’m Not Scared” leaves its audience with a sense of triumph, celebrating the tumbling children who frolic in the sun of southern Italy, the importance of secrets and the bravery of the young even under harsh conditions.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

Quick Takes
Moviegoers looking for something different might seek out The Saddest Music in the World, a musical directed by Canadian Guy Maddin in black and white (with occasional color tints) and set in Winnipeg during the Depression winter of 1933. Maddin is as ingenious as he is frenetic: The zany story, based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, centers on a contest sponsored by legless beer-baron Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini). Open to every country, the contest offers a $25,000 prize for whatever group makes the saddest sound. There are wild bits of farce as when Lady Port-Huntley is given new prosthetic legs of glass (filled with beer), or contestants who win their rounds against another country celebrate by riding a chute into a giant beer vat. Madden’s every shot is filled with wacky details; his movie goes beyond satire into a strange mixture of hysteria and depression.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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