A young boy follows his heart
An SUV carrying an Italian couple, an adoption broker and her driver/muscle/lover runs out of gas somewhere in the frozen countryside of northern Russia, near the Finnish border. The Italian woman wears a big white fur hat and an expression at once vulpine and moronic, like a not-terribly-clever fox. The man brims with what seems like a blend of expansionist hauteur and proprietary fondness.
“This is the real Russia,” he says, and he offers his mechanical services. (The revelation of his job is surprising; we’ve taken them for potentates of some sort.) His clueless wife misinterprets the assessment. “Yes, it’s a very cold country,” she says. They have come to Russia to adopt a child.
There’s a universe of information contained in this scene -- the idea of Russia as a country full of “spare” children, of Italy (with its record-low birth rate) as a country with not enough of them, of Russia’s poverty relative to Western Europe, where a mechanic is wealthy by local standards, of the wounding (but not entirely incorrect) assumptions made by foreigners about the best option for abandoned Russian children being a ticket out of the country and a new identity as a foreign child, of the complicated moral justifications of illegal adoptions made by brokers and corrupt, if well-intentioned, orphanage directors.
The first feature film by documentary maker Andrei Kravchuk, “The Italian” was inspired by a newspaper story about a boy who ran away from an orphanage and tracked down his mother, but it can trace its antecedents to neo-realist and Soviet film traditions, in which the hardscrabble lives of poor, unloved children are offered as social critique. The world Kravchuk creates has its edges softened by the camaraderie at the orphanage and by the patronage of the older children, who organize into Artful Dodgers, like a (or, if you prefer, Soviet) collective, and that makes sure whatever meager wealth enters the institution is distributed evenly.
Kravchuk’s view is considerably less hardened than, for instance, Lukas Moodysson’s unrelentingly grim portrait of abandoned Russian children in his film “Lilja 4-Ever.” Kolya Spiridonov, who plays the movie’s tiny hero, Vanya Solntsev, a soulful 6-year-old with the gravelly voiced gruffness of an anime character, physically resembles the actor who played Lilja’s friend Volodya in Moodysson’s film, but unlike that character he perseveres through his David Copperfield circumstances with superhuman resilience and fairy-tale luck, despite serious setbacks.
At the orphanage where the Italians eventually arrive, the adoption broker (Maria Kuznetsova) is known as Madam, and she is universally regarded as the only ticket out of poverty by the older kids (aged out of the adoption pool) and the younger kids, who clamor around her like pet-store puppies. The only holdout is Vanya, whom the Italians have selected as their future son.
In the office of the crumbling orphanage director (Yuri Itskov), the Italians hug Vanya, trying him on like a new coat, and agree to come back for him in a couple of months. Vanya is understandably reticent, and his reluctance turns to anxiety after the mother of a recently adopted friend shows up looking for her son. The thought of his birth mother trying to find him after he’s been sent to live abroad keeps him up at night, and soon Vanya determines to run away and find her.
For all its sly appraisals, grouty surfaces and hard-luck situations, “The Italian” is underneath it all a fairy-tale, though the thought doesn’t crystallize until later. A remarkably compelling presence, Spiridonov commands attention without pandering or appealing to pity. In fact, for a 6-year-old, he is possessed of an uncanny poise, so that it comes as no surprise that he chooses his own path against the perfectly reasonable advice of others.
If that’s not a Hollywood lesson, I don’t know what is -- and Kravchuk is as shameless about milking it as he is skilled at tucking it into a gritty little picture that presents itself as more tough-minded than it strictly is. Not that you mind. Vanya’s quest is primal and his heart is pure, and Spiridonov earns every ounce of sympathy he gets.
“The Italian.” MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles. Exclusively at Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.