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The Italian


"Dickensian" barely describes Andrei Kravchuk's heartbreaking drama of a determined young orphan in search of his birth mother, although comparisons to Oliver Twist are apt. Where Dickens found some humour and occasional rays of sunshine in the bleak streets of London, The Italian uncovers only desperation and doggedness in their Russian equivalent. Equal parts fairy tale and documentary, the film sets a quest for human warmth against a portrait of the unfeeling capitalism of modern Russia. There's no artfulness to the dodgers here. Just a determination born of knowing that if you want any love at all, you have to fight for it. The title seems misleading until you realize it's the cruelly spot-on nickname of the boy-child hero, little 6-year-old Russian orphan Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov). He's a lad of blond hair and hazel eyes, which almost disappear beneath the floppy winter hat he wears. Vanya lives with other abandoned children in an orphanage run for profit by a money-grubbing woman known only as "Madam" (Mariya Kuznetsova). For extravagant fees, she matches affluent foreign clients with the adoptable child of their choice. Her stooge, chauffeur and occasional lover Sery (Sasha Sirotkin), makes sure that all of Madam's desires are met. An Italian couple expresses keen interest in young Vanya, hence the nickname that betrays the fact he is simply chattel bound for a foreign land. It's not necessarily a bad thing, though – at least Vanya will have loving parents, a warm bed and plenty of good food to eat, all of which he currently lacks. The fellow orphans who twit his new Italian status – a rag-tag group of young hustlers and prostitutes led by wily teen Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko) – do so as much through jealously as scorn. Unlike Vanya, they have no immediate prospect of leaving hell. It's hard to fathom at first what Vanya thinks of all this. He seems perpetually worried. But during the delay for the adoption and financing arrangements, he meets a tearful woman who upsets him greatly. She's the birth mother of one of Vanya's fellow orphans, who was recently taken away by another foreign couple. Realizing she has arrived too late and will never see her child again, the mother takes drastic action with tragic consequences. Vanya is so moved by this, he resolves that he must find his own birth mother, of whom he has no memory. The roadblocks are enormous. All records of birth mothers are locked in the office of the drunken headmaster (Yuri Itskov), who runs the orphanage like a prison. Even if Vanya could figure out a way to get the keys from him, he'd still be unable to read the documents because he's illiterate. He is trapped in more than one jail. The stakes are high. If Vanya doesn't go with the Italian couple, it could give the orphanage a bad reputation and Madam isn't about to let that happen. Vanya is made of sterner stuff than we at first suppose. He befriends a young prostitute named Irka (Olga Shuvalova), who offers to teach him how to read if he agrees to pay her. But she'll have to do so secretly, because Kolya scoffs at Vanya's plans to find his mother. "You should forget that crap and be happy," Kolya tells Vanya. The older boy had his own terrible upbringing and all hopes of family bliss were beaten out of him. Vanya is not willing to give up. He hatches a plan to find his mother. He knows she is out there, even if she doesn't know he is looking for her. "I see her in my dreams," Vanya says. Few characters in recent cinema have been as memorable as Vanya. He seems almost like a figure out of myth, so determined is he to find his mother despite an endless series of setbacks. His screen presence is so intense, it makes it easy to overlook the occasional rough spot in the narrative. Russian filmmaker Kravchuk has a documentary background, which he employs to great use. The slowly developing main story is about Vanya's maternal quest, but in the background the larger tale looms: whatever economic good came out of the smashing of the Soviet monolith at the end of the 1980s, it didn't trickle down to the poorest of the poor. Alexander Kneiffel's Spartan score, often nothing more than a gently tinkling piano, contributes to the feeling that what you're seeing is the grimmest of fairy tales. The Italian is tough to watch at times, but then so is life. Chances are you'll leave the theatre moved by the strength of the human spirit and with newfound respect for the bond between a child and his mother. -- Peter Howell, Toronto Star
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Directed by: 
Andrei Romanov
Running Time: 
Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Dariya Lesnikova

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