Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 13, 2007 12:31 pm 
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Neorealist-influenced story highlights the plight of orphans in Russia

The Italian/Italianetz uses Zavattini/De Sica-style neorealistic effects to tell the story of a six-year-old Russian orphan boy about to be adopted by an Italian couple who runs off to see if he can find his own mother instead. Arranging adoptions freelance on the edge of the social system is "Madam" (Mariya Koznetsova), a plump, bossy, slick female with a glum factotum, chauffeur, toady, and sometime lover, Grisha (Nikolai Reutov). Madam makes a bundle out of each successful adoption by foreigners and is free with bribes and threats to be sure her deals go through. A product of modern Russian capitalism, the money-mad Madam is more villain than fairy godmother.

Using a photo followed up by an on-site interview at the detsky dom (children's home), Madam has arranged with an Italian couple, Roberto and Claudia, to adopt young Vanya Sonetsiv (Kolya Spridonov). But then when Vanya meets up with a remorseful drunken mom who apparently commits suicide after learning her child has been adopted and taken to Ialy, he gets the urge to investigate his own record. Everybody acts like he's such a lucky guy. But supposing he goes off with Roberto and Claudia? Mightn't he miss out on a chance to be reunited with his own mother, should she have a change of heart and want him back? Is there such a chance, though? And where is his mother? To find out, first Vanya has to learn to read – a detail the orphanage has neglected – and find a way to get a look at his file.

The detsky dom's administration is not exactly on the up-and-up. The wild looking director (Yuri Itskov) is drinking up all the funds, and this leaves a small clique of older boys to pretty much run the place and its finances, like a rawly capitalistic petty mafia, sporting scars, tattoos and muscles and throwing around words like "cosa nostra." Led by a boy named Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko), they have their own little systems of businesses and payoffs. And this shadow regime, up to a point anyway, really seems to work. The kids' beds are clean and the girls mend their clothes and read them fairy tales at bedtime. But it's clear there's no pathway to a better future in the life here. Vanya, whom everybody now calls "the Italian" because of the good fortune they feel he's destined for when the papers go through in a month or so, now wangles his way in with the older boys, and they help him out. Among these undergrown mafiosi is a girl named Irka (Olga Shuvalova) who they pimp out to truck drivers. It's she who teaches Vanya to read. The big boys help Vanya break into the room where the records are kept and he gets the address of the maternal home where he came from, and Irka takes Vanya to the railway station, having robbed the boys' current till and intending to run off with him. Madam immediately finds out that Vanya has disappeared and, standing to lose her payoff if she can't deliver him to the Italian couple, she sets off in hot pursuit with Grisha.

What follows is a wild chase in which Vanya shows what he's made of. Nothing, and that includes some pretty rough scrapes, can stop him from his relentless flight and quest.

The Italian never loses its authentic flavor either as it moves toward an emotionally satisfying if somewhat hasty finish Still, it's obviously in the first half of the film that we get our best look at this world and its people and the Russian orphan problem. It might even have been a better treatment of that issue if some of the earlier scenes had been allowed to play out a bit longer.

The San Francisco Chronicle's venerable Ruthe Stein called this the best "naturalistic performance by a Russian child actor since Kolya a decade ago." Spiridonov is very effective and appealing in his role, and perhaps The Italian has some links with that somewhat saccharine earlier film. But The Italian is more chastening than Kolya. A more appropriate recent comparison (and another great youth performance in Russian) is the picaresque, unpredictable Schizo (2004), directed by Guldchat Omarova with the 15-year-old Oldzhas Nusupbayev. The Italian isn't saccharine, but it's also not as grim a view of the plight of lost Russian children as Lukas Moodysson's deeply depressing 2002 film Lilja 4-Ever. See all four and decide for yourself which feels like the most convincing and cinematic story of Russian childhood. You'll have to consider whether Kravchuk undercuts or strengthens his material by turning it into a fairy tale.

Regardless of the ending, it must have been the urge to depict a growing social problem and at the same time tell an engaging story that drew a documentarian like Kravchuk to this subject. He has worked well with his non-actors and his writer Andrei Romanov, and Aleksandr Burov has provided a misty, subtly colored cinematography.

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