The Reeler


January 19, 2007

The Italian

In his first feature, Kravchuk traces an orphan's Russian arc with unabashed sentiment

European directors should give Americans master classes on how to coax astonishing performances from child actors. Compare little Bruno in The Bicycle Thief to Shirley Temple in anything, Wojciech Klata in the first Decalogue to Macauley Culkin, or Victoire Thivisol in 1996's Ponette to Dakota Fanning, and the difference is almost embarrassing. Rather than encourage preternatural mirroring of adulthood and adult emotions, the children acting in the above-mentioned films are a revelation of naturalism, doing the seemingly impossible simply by representing themselves as children. In The Italian, Kolya Spiridonov plays Vanya, a six-year-old living at a provincial Russian orphanage, and though he can match highlights with either part of the tow-headed monster playing brother and sister in Babel, director Andrei Kravchuk manages to make Vanya not a moppet or a marionette but a marvel in being so plainly a child, with all the shape-shifting translucence of a child's soul.

The orphan is a well-worn literary and filmic trope, spring-loaded for pathos; even saying the word softens the face into a sympathetic "ohh." The deck is really stacked here –- the dilapidated orphanage shot through a perpetual white Russian fog, the thin-limbed, bright-eyed little children teeming from every crevice and hiding under every chair -- and Kravchuk doesn't always play fair, but it's hard to blame him for lingering on the faces of the boys, many of whom are bona fide waifs from a Leningrad children's home. Set in 2002, The Italian's title refers to the nickname given to Vanya after an adoption by an Italian couple is set up by Madam (Maria Kuznetsova, constantly on the brink of caricature), a broker working outside of the law, and within the realm of the almighty euro in post-communist Russia. A semblance of order is kept by Headmaster (Yuri Itskov), and the older orphans are asked to take care of the younger, but they have other plans, with the ringleader Kolyan (Sasha Syrotkin) running all sorts of bad business (including pimping out one of the teenage girls) from the orphanage's basement.

Vanya is considered lucky to be chosen by the wealthy Italians; during the two-month waiting period, however, another inmate's mother comes looking for her son (he has already been adopted) and when she is turned away, throws herself under a train. Suddenly Vanya is full of questions: did his mother lose him or abandon him, and, if he were to leave, how would she find him if she changed her mind? With the single-mindedness of the very young, Vanya hatches a plan to return to his mother, and the first step is learning to read, so he can find her address in his case file (Kravchuk based this detail on a true story). When Irka, the young prostitute, intervenes, Vanya's pocket picaresque adventure begins; Madam, fearing the loss of her sizable profit, takes off in pursuit of the runaway. Icy and stout in her leopard-print blouson and frosted lipstick, Madam is a boy's worst nightmare of the female realm: powerful, manipulative, and no doubt steeped in cheap perfume.

The film takes on something of a farcical tone as Vanya races to stay two steps ahead, certain not only that he will find his mother, but that she will be overjoyed to see him. As Vanya, Spiridonov is completely, classically absorbing -- he can charm a train full of adults but succumbs to a mugging by some street kids -- his face assimilates violence, injustice, danger, affection and friendship with steadfast, searching calm. The film seems longer than its 99 minutes, however, and if you're feeling impatient with the pacing or even his nibs himself, the bow-tied ending just might send you over the edge. The Italian is Kravchuk’s first feature, and contains some beautifully composed images (it was shot by Alexander Burov) along with the winning performance of his star; from the walls and faces of the orphanage, painted in dark winter light, to the deep greens and golden skies along the path to the self-determined hero's rightful home, Kravchuck offers a painful but ultimately hopeful look at what is clearly his beloved country.

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