A peculiar quirk of modern popular entertainment is the desire to represent childhood as a state of candy-coated innocence. Not only do we sell our children sanitised classics which have been corrupted with kindness (no walking on knives or death-in-the-clouds denouements for Disney's Little Mermaid, folks), but we are encouraged to mythologise our own lost youth as being entirely pain-free. Yet, as is shown by the popularity of a string of splendidly sadistic children's writers - from the Brothers Grimm to Heinrich Hoffmann and Hilaire Belloc - fear and trembling are essential to any honest depiction of childhood. This remains true even in an age where Struwwelpeter would be carried off by social services long before his unruly nails and hair had turned him into the magnificent under-age harpy of legend.
There's a touch of Struwwelpeter's feral appeal in Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), the mysterious hole-dwelling spectre whose first fleeting appearance caused hardened film critics to shriek at the screening that I attended of I'm Not Scared (Io Non Ho Paura). The recipient of several accolades at prestigious European festivals, this unexpectedly unsettling Italian oddity from Gabriele Salvatores, the director of Mediterraneo, pits ten-year-old Michele (marvellously played by Giuseppe Cristiano) against the sins of parents who may not be the paragons of hard-working virtue they appear. "You're too young . . ." declares Michele's mother when her son demands to know the truth about the strange boy buried in the ground who claims to be dead, and who views Michele as an angel. Yet, despite his tender years, fresh-faced Michele already knows the answers to questions that Mum and Dad are too ashamed to face.
Beautifully shot by the cinematographer Italo Petriccione, whose childish eye fills the screen with terrifyingly enticing fields of sunlit corn and alluring cavernous craters, I'm Not Scared is an adult kids' film par excellence - a tale of childhood beauty and horror refracted (rather than filtered) through a solidly "grown-up" sensibility. Adapted from the bestselling novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, Salvatores's film echoes Claude Miller's spine-tingling La Classe de Neige in its ever-so-slightly surreal revelations of paternal deceit. Horror fans may also recognise parallels with Guillermo del Toro's El Espinazo del Diablo/The Devil's Backbone or even with Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, in the implied communion of children and ghosts.
Despite the lack of any supernatural happenings, I'm Not Scared speaks the language of dark fable, conjuring a magical rite of passage that never confuses innocence with ignorance. As for the 15 certificate - although it sadly excludes younger viewers, older audiences may still find themselves reduced to a state of childish amazement by the film's eerie spell.
Less remarkable, but equally unexpected, is Connie and Carla, a camp comedy cross between Victor/Victoria and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which is far less ghastly than it sounds. Although I praised Toni Collette last week for her chameleon-like adaptability, I admit to approaching her latest incarnation with a mixture of dread and awe. Did we really need a wacky tale of two small-town girls with dreams of stardom who hide away from murderous gangsters by impersonating-men-impersonating-women at a gay club in LA? Hadn't we done the cutesy drag thing to death with To Wong Foo and its icky ilk? Apparently not. So hey ho, it's off we go with Collette and writer/co-star Nia Vardalos, creator of the ludicrously successful indie romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Things start well as our heroines murder a selection of musical classics in a Midwestern airport lounge before fleeing to la-la land to resurrect the long-dead "dinner theatre" tradition. Cue much fun at The Handlebar, a drag joint where Connie and Carla are welcomed as real Marys who can actually sing rather than just lip-synch. Although it is possible to predict all the plot developments at the outset - from Connie's desire to tell David Duchovny's nice straight guy that she is really a girl, through the macho Russian mobster's growing fondness for show tunes, and on to the inevitable Debbie Reynolds cameo - Connie and Carla produces plenty of good-natured laughs thanks to the spunky charm of its leading ladies.
For my part, I could have done without the heavy-handed PC messages, which include telling us that drag queens aren't freaks and that it's OK to be fat (a tad rich, considering the newly svelte proportions of both Vardalos and Collette). It's all a far cry from the 1960s, when the playwright Mart Crowley was vilified for portraying gays as screaming queens. But at least there are enough hearty guffaws to compensate for the gaffes, even if originality remains off the dinner-theatre menu.