In many ways Mirco was a typical 10-year-old boy; skittish, puppyish and with a very short attention span. One second he’d be playing with a spinning top, and a nanosecond later he’d be running down the street in pursuit of the next fun thing. Mirco was the only child of adoring parents living in the idyllic Tuscan countryside; nothing bad happened except skinned knees and a broken pot handle. Then one afternoon a rifle accident (which happened out of childish curiosity and recklessness) robbed Mirco of his eyesight.

Under Italian law in the 1960s, he was no longer allowed to attend the local elementary school. Forcibly put into a state-subsidized boarding school for the blind in Genoa, he had no choice but to cut a fresh start, but without being able to see where he was going.

So goes the story of “Rosso Come Il Cielo” (released in Japan as “Mirco no Hikari”), based on the life of Italian sound designer Mirco Mencacci (who edited the soundtrack for this film).

Rosso Come Il Cielo
Director Cristiano Bortone
Run Time 100 minutes
Language Italian
Opens Opens Sept. 8, 2007

Mencacci is one of the most prominent sound engineers in Italian cinema and has worked with great directors such as the late Michelangelo Antonioni and Marco Tullio Giordana (“The Best of Youth”), among many others. Filmmaker Cristiano Bortone is another one of them, and was taken by Mencacci’s life story (told laughingly over a lunch break), which he felt just begged for a film treatment. They went to work, and the result is this film (whose title in English means “red like the sky,” a line from the movie spoken by Mirco) — a beautifully shot and subtly told tale of a child coming to terms with a sudden tragedy.

For a healthy 10-year-old boy to one day be deprived of his vision is a fate so cruel as to almost defy imagination; for Mirco (played in the movie by the wonderfully impish Luca Capriotti), the most painful thing of all was to lose the ability to see the faces of his parents and friends. When he begins boarding at the blind school, he can just about discern blurry colors and bright lights and stands at the window of the dormitory, desperately “watching” his parents wave goodbye from the courtyard. In a few months, however, he loses the ability to see even the brightest lights. One night the school matron discovers Mirco standing barefoot in the dormitory bathroom, repeatedly switching the lights on and off, calling out that all the light bulbs need to be changed.

In real life, Mencacci stayed at the school for five years before going to a normal high school, and from there to the cinema industry. “Rosso” doesn’t touch on that part; the film is about a particular time in a special childhood, beginning with Mirco’s accident and ending with the closing of the school term. Bortone doesn’t dwell on the tragedy nor does he waste time charting Mirco’s sadness or pain. Blindness is treated as a physical condition: unfortunate, but one that ultimately need not interfere with a person’s inherent happiness. Mirco is besides, too spirited and rebellious to succumb to tragedy, and sets about discovering a whole new world of sound and sound production.

This is where his dislike of sitting still works to his benefit. Instead of learning Braille, he feigns illness and wanders into the headmaster’s office, where he finds an unused tape recorder and a radio. He begins to record various sounds, and starts to experiment with how sound can be used to transmit information and evoke emotion, just like words or pictures. In the process he is befriended by the school caretaker’s daughter Francesca (Francesca Maturanza), who embarks on a secret project with Mirco to produce a school play based entirely on sound production, both recorded and live.

Though the distributor in Japan is touting this as the new “Cinema Paradiso,” it’s altogether less treacly, a little edgier and less convenient. Mirco does not have an older companion/paternal figure who guides him on the path of professional cinema. He’s mildly supported by people who value his gift for sound-making, such as Braille teacher Don Giulio (Paolo Sassanelli), who encourages the boy and protects him from the wrath of the stern headmaster. But it’s a disinterested love, and Don Giulio never attempts to become a part of Mirco’s personal life.

Also impressive is the stance taken by Ettore (Marco Cocci), a blind student/factory worker who himself had studied at the school. Kindly, he tells Mirco that his time at the school is temporary and that one day he will be free to walk out into the world as a capable adult. (“You’ll grow up, and by that time you’ll have outgrown everything about this place.”)

“Rosso” is, perhaps, unsatisfying for the viewer expecting sentiment and sweeping emotions, and the editing is a bit jarred and choppy in places. But as a story about childhood, the understatement and restraint make it all the more poignant.

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