The Italian - Italianetz
|Directed by||Andrei Kravchuk|
What I am doing as I write this, and what you are doing as you read it, reflect the secret that lies at the heart of Andrei Kravchuk?s deeply affecting The Italian. This film is about many things, but the magic key that unlocks the treasure chest is literacy.
The Italian is the story of a 6-year-old boy in a Dickensian provincial Russian orphanage who decides he needs to find his real mother. To equip himself to do so, he must learn to read. Without that power, he would not be able to access and decipher his orphanage file, much less negotiate the daunting solo journey upon which the information in that file will set him.
And if this sounds far-fetched, consider that it is based on a true story. The screenwriter, Andrei Romanov, came upon the account in a Russian newspaper. He suggested the story to Kravchuk, who had approached him about doing a movie on the desperate lives of the increasing number of homeless boys scrabbling for survival in the streets of Russia?s cities.
As the two developed the story for their screen version, little Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) is chosen for adoption by an Italian couple who come to the orphanage. The transaction is brokered by a hard-boiled, fully-packed blonde dynamo known only as Madam (Mariya Kuznetsova), a professional procurer of orphans for well-heeled Westerners (does her name suggest another line of work?) A considerable amount of money, about 5,000 Euros, changes hands. (?You know how much they make on us?? one of the boys whispers as they watch, noses pressed to windows. ?When Alesha was adopted, the Director was drunk for a week!?). The other orphans look on enviously as Vanya is chosen; to be adopted by this foreign couple, to leave the bleak orphanage in frozen Russia for a family in sunny Italy is like winning the lottery. With derisive irony, they start referring to Vanya as ?The Italian.?
But there?s red tape to be processed, and a couple of months to wait, before the Italian couple can take possession of their new son. During that time a young mother comes to the orphanage hoping to reclaim her child. She is vilified, and told that the boy has already been adopted. They send her away. Vanya encounters her at a bus stop, where he sits with her and hears her story of anguish and regret. When a short time later the news spreads that the woman has committed suicide in classic Russian style by throwing herself under a train, Vanya starts wondering about his own mother, and what would happen if she were to come to the orphanage to try to get him back. To the consternation of his fellow orphans, he decides to give up the opportunity to become an Italian, and run away to find her and reclaim his real identity.
He persuades an older orphan, the good-hearted teenage hooker Irka (Olga Shuvalova), to teach him to read, then breaks into the Director?s office to steal his file. With a little help from Irka he sets off on his perilous and hopeless-seeming odyssey, with his most precious possession, his copy of Kipling?s The Jungle Book, tucked tightly under his arm. It?s a jungle out there.
There?s a fairy-tale quality to this story, and a strong flavor of knight-errant fable as well. There are plucky orphans, ogres and monsters, unexpected allies, and the dreaming of impossible dreams. But it?s also a hard-eyed look at modern Russia. This is Kravchuk?s first feature, but he?s a veteran of the documentary discipline. In the opening scene of this movie, as Madam and the Italian couple are motoring across the pale, wintry, sunless landscape of provincial western Russia, the car runs out of gas. Children are summoned from the nearby orphanage to push it the rest of the way. The institution is run on cold, calculating capitalist principles by Madam, with the help of the Director (Yuri Itskov), a failed, petty drunkard. But there is a collective being run below-stairs, Soviet-style, by the older boys. Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko), the capo of the boiler room mafia, assigns each according to his or her ability to do such jobs as turning tricks or washing windshields, with orders to return all earnings to the collective, where they will be appropriated by each according to his or her ability.
The acting is all solid. The kids, many of whom in the smaller roles are non-professionals and real orphans, are wonderful, but it is little Kolya Spiridonov, a child actor with a film or two in his r?sum?, who makes the difference. Solemn, observant, and utterly believable, he holds our emotional attention and helps carry us past a few soggier moments toward the latter part of the film.
Kravchuk is a professed fan of Italian Neo-Realism, and The Bicycle Thief in particular, and it?s not hard to see that shared sense of appreciation of the world of children as a microcosm and a reflection of the ills, challenges, and hopes of a society at large.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be