Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando
The Italian (opening February 2 for a limited run at Landmark's Ken Cinema) actually has very little to do with Italy. The story takes place in an orphanage in Russia and deals with one boy's attempt to find his mother.
In the 2005 Russian film The Italian, an affluent Italian couple comes to Russia to adopt a child. The woman arranging the adoption takes the couple to a remote, chilly village. There they visit a somewhat rundown and overcrowded children's home where they find six-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov). They decide that the quiet, attractive child suits their needs, and they express interest in adopting him. They pay a hefty fee, fill out paperwork and then leave with plans to return shortly to take the child home. The other kids at the orphanage are jealous that Vanya will soon have a real home in the warm, sunny clime of Italy. So they start calling him The Italian.
But while all the other children are envious of Vanya's prospective new family, Vanya wonders about his real parents. A woman visits the orphanage looking for the child she abandoned years ago and when she doesn't find him she commits suicide. This event serves as a jolt to Vanya. Suddenly his vague curiosity about his own mother turns into an obsession. He now becomes determined to seek her out at any cost. He teaches himself to read, and steals the meager legal documents in his file stored in the orphanage's safe. But the papers only provide the name and address of the children's home where he had originally been left. With only this scrap of information, Vanya flees the orphanage and sets out to find his mother. The headmaster (Yuri Itskov) and greedy adoption broker (Maria Kuznetsova), though, are not about to let their valuable commodity slip away so easily, so they set off in pursuit.
Directed by Andrei Kravchuk, and apparently based on a true story, The Italian weaves a compelling tale of one child's fierce determination to reconnect with the mother who abandoned him. Kravchuk paints a dreary picture of life in a Russian orphanage where children are a commodity. The landscape is cold and bleak, and the adults are not much more appealing. The only warmth and compassion come from the other children. In the scenes between Vanya and his friend, Kravchuk finds gentle intimacy. But we sense that there's not much hope for the children we meet. One young girl is already making a living as a prostitute while the older boys are essentially running a gang. This is a world where survival is tough, so it's surprising that Vanya would pass on the promising prospect of moving in with a family in Italy. But little Kolya Spiridonov makes us believe that Vanya could be driven by such passion that he would abandon what seems like a sure thing for the unknown.
Kolya Spiridonov as Vanya in The Italian
The strength of the film is Spiridonov's wondrous performance. With a bright, open face and a natural ease in front of the camera, Spiridonov quickly wins the audience over. There's nothing sentimental in his performance and he never tries to milk the emotions of a scene. As Vanya he displays an amazing perseverance and surprising will power. The need to find his mother seems to invest Spiridonov's Vanya with a fearlessness approaching stupidity as he stands up to older, bigger and crueler characters. But nothing daunts him. He's a remarkable and memorable character.
By the film's end, the audience has developed such an attachment to the spirited lad that we pray the film will end with his success. But the film faces something of a quandary in the final reel. If Vanya doesn't find his mother, what can the film do to compensate the audience for the emotional investment it's built up in the main character? And if Vanya does find his mother, what can the film do to avoid a maudlin fade out that smacks of Hollywood calculation and manipulation? I won't reveal how the film ends, but I will say it manages to navigate the potential problems with some skill.
The Italian (in Russian with English subtitles and rated PG-13) is a small film, and I mean that in the best sense. It sets out to tell one little boy's story and it does so with honest emotions and a gentle, but compassionate tone. It's a film that never promises happiness but does offer hope.
Companion viewing: The Christmas Miracle (Rozhdestvenskaya mysterya) , The Devil's Backbone, The Return (Russian), Father and Son (Russian), Kolya