Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Film Review #83: The Italian
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Cast: Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Sasha Syrotkin
In the most obviously dramatic scene in Andrei Kravchuk’s debut feature film, a runaway six-year-old Russian boy, Vanya – the nickname bestowed at the orphanage when a couple from Italy express a desire to adopt him provides the film’s title – is cornered in a debris-strewn courtyard by the surly chauffeur sent to recapture him. Panting and disheveled, both bear assorted rips, cuts and bruises from a long chase by rail, car and foot. Wildly outstripped, Vanya turns to fight. He smashes a bottle and shrieks, “I’ll kill you!” As Sery closes in, Vanya slashes his own arm. The hulking man – still bandaged after a thrashing from some tramps who roared, “We don’t sell children!” – wraps Vanya in a desperate, suddenly tender embrace. With new respect he asks Vanya where the boy learned that move.

“From the thieves,” says Vanya. Advising the boy not to do that again, Sery adds, “If you hit an artery, it’s all over.”

A long-time documentary and television filmmaker, Kravchuk made The Italian with a script based on a newspaper article about an orphan who learned to read so he could search for his mother. Kravchuk shot his film at a state-run provincial orphanage in Russia’s snowy northwest. He cast many of the featured roles with children living there, though Kolya Spiridonov, who plays Vanya and easily rivals Enzo Staoila’s little Bruno in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, is not an orphan.

The story is straightforward enough. This post-Soviet backwater is relentlessly bleak, damp and cold. Perhaps riding a circuit of such orphanages in her new American Range Rover, Madam (Maria Kuznetsova) and her driver Sery (Sasha Syrotkin) periodically emerge from the fog with prospective parents from the West in tow. Pudgy and very focused, Madam is selling. In one scene that mocks industrialization, Madam has set up an assembly line for photos that will advertise the little ones. She uses the same teddy bear over and over as a prop, each time ripped from the hands of the last child who cradled it. Woe to the reluctant boy who hopes his own mother may come back for him. Upstairs, a wraith of a headmaster with washed-out eyes runs the place as Madam tells him. His most frequent word to the kids: “Scram!”

From the dark, holding forth from a perpetual card game next to the boiler, older teen Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko) collects the wages of all the orphans who work. Vanya sponges headlights and windshields all day at a gas station near the highway. Irka, eleven or twelve, climbs up the sides of towering diesel rigs into the cabs like a little monkey, where she spends her days servicing the drivers. Irka (Olga Shuvalova) teaches Vanya to read so he can steal his records from the office. She helps him escape, buys him a red jacket at a flea-market and lies for him when she’s caught so he can get on the train for his mother’s hometown. Irka has frizzy red curls, long matchstick legs below her mini-skirt and a momentarily kind face destined to turn hard and blotchy with sores before she’s twenty.

Despite general admiration for this film, reviewers keep calling The Italian “Dickensian” or describing it as a fairy-tale. Really it is neither. How often “Dickensian” on-screen applies to stories placed at some historical remove that renders the characters’ rags as costumes and their surroundings as exotic. Assorted deformities and those incomparably punned British names become jauntily, benignly eccentric – except for Polanksi’s Oliver Twist, but he was an orphan himself. Calling this story a fairy tale suggests Vanya doesn’t face real dangers.

Although Madam and Sery have ridiculous moments, their orphanage isn’t faintly picturesque. This is no nostalgic workers’ collective that the squat Kolyan has going in the basement. Short-boned, junk-fed prince of a new Russia, Kolyan is like Deadwood’s saloon-owner and whore-keeper Al Swearingen – another miner of orphanages – in wanting the camp just stable enough so he can rob it blind. So in what’s supposed to be a school, Kolyan punishes Vanya for learning to read. The novels of Martin Cruz Smith seem more apt than Dickens here, with post-Soviet detective Arkady Renko finding a corrosive, grimy, home-grown corruption as deadly as any terrorism.

Part of Kravchuk’s gift is that he has cast and directed players who evoke their characters’ past and future ages with a vividness usually found in those curious fatigued moments of loosened associations on a bus or subway, those odd moments when you look at a child and see the grown-up he will be, or vice versa. As a work of self-reflective national cinema, it’s extraordinary to note that The Italian was Russia’s official Oscar entry for best foreign language picture. It is possible to miss the extent of this achievement, distracted by the notion it’s only about an orphan boy who finds his mom.

The Italian opened in limited release on January 19th. This review appeared on 2/14/07 at