Who would have thought that the glory days of post WW II Italian neorealism could be so perfectly revisited by a fledgling Russian director in his first stint behind the camera? Inspired by the newspaper account of the exploits of a real-life orphan, director Andrei Kravchuk, (whose sole previous experience consists of a seven year old screenwriting credit) has fashioned a stunning and suspenseful debut laced with social commentary about life in contemporary Russia. The director blends his tale of a plucky kid with a consistently hard-edged view of his country’s poverty which recalls Vittorio De Sica’s classic, The Bicycle Thief, making The Italian one of the nicest movie surprises of recent memory.
Vanya, (Kolya Spiridonov) is a 6 year old blond tow-head confined to a dilapidated orphanage in rural Russia. Like prisons in South America, this institution is really run by its inmates, especially a handful of thuggish teenagers too old for adoption but too young to be turned out on the streets. The spineless bureaucrat who nominally heads the facility pays for his booze and cigarettes by quietly pedaling his most appealing charges to Madam, a soulless “adoption facilitator” who specializes in foreign couples willing to utilize her marginally legal services. When she places a child without obtaining the permission of its birth mother, the woman commits suicide, leaving Vanya terrified that the same thing might happen to his mother should she decide to return for him.
Undeterred by Vanya’s obvious reluctance, Madam charges an upper class Italian couple $5,000 for the privilege of giving the boy a new life, but before he can be delivered, Vanya’s uses his older compatriots to break into the orphanage’s office to learn where his birth mother lives. His determination impresses Sasha, a fellow inmate barely in her teens who earns money turning tricks for the long-haul truckers who pass by the orphanage. Sasha gives Vanya enough money for a train ticket and takes him to the local station, with Madam and her bodyguard/driver in hot pursuit. The chase is on…
As Vanya eludes his pursuers, he deals with both random kindness and brutality at the hands of those he meets, providing the director and screenwriter Andrei Romano the opportunity to present a picture of contemporary Russia that’s uncompromising in its unflattering portrayal of human life at a subsistence level. It’s a world where even a kind word shines like a beacon in a sea of callous behavior, drunken abuse and threadbare resources. Vanya’s beaten, robbed of what little he has and finds himself turned away time and again by those who can’t be bothered with a dirty-faced street urchin…but others bless him with warm soup, a bench to sleep on and vital directions because they see irresistible value in his innocent, earnest quest.
The Italian’s offhand presentation of poverty’s precise details magnifies the hazards of Vanya’s odyssey; abandoned trucks turn the landscape into endless junkyards, offering sanctuary to thieves who prey on the weak; grime, inadequate maintenance and shoddy construction mock the homes and public buildings in which he finds uncomfortable refuge during his travels and even the token financial assistance that would be of vital assistance to him isn’t forthcoming from the genuinely supportive people he meets because they’re penniless themselves. The film’s ability to convey the precarious nature of life on the margins makes Vanya’s desperation palpable, heightening the plot’s suspense and magnifying Vanya’s terror. The storyline teases with perfectly logical twists and turns and Vanya’s brief encounters with the adults in the world outside the orphanage are rendered more touching by the consistently fine performances of the supporting cast.
If The Italian ends on a sentimental note worthy of Frank Capra, the compelling realism which precedes it more than justifies the half-dozen “best film” awards this movie has garnered at various European film festivals.
The verdict? That rarity, a movie that can be unhesitatingly recommended.
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