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Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 4.26.07



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In a Cold Place

Courage in a Russian bleak house

BY JASON BLAIR

THE ITALIAN: Directed by Andrei Kravchuk. Written by Andrei Romanov. Cinematography, Alexander Burov. Music, Alexander Kneiffel. Starring Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Darya Lesnikova, Yuri Itskov and Nikolai Reutov. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. PG-13. 99 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles.

Kolya Spiridonov in The Italian

Read Martin Amis's recent masterpiece House of Meetings and you get the sense of Russia in turmoil at mid-century. Watch The Italian — Russia's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Oscars — and you get the sense that not much has changed. Economically broken, socially chaotic and politically corrupt, Russia has endured democracy rather than thrived under its influence. What emerges from these stories is that today's Russia needs a hero, some man or woman who can't easily be bought. Fortunately, a hero is what The Italian ably provides, albeit in an unexpected package.

The "Italian" in question is little Vanya, an orphan at a Lenigrad children's home who arouses the interest of an affluent Italian couple. With only two months before his paperwork is processed, one might expect Vanya to luxuriate in the metaphor Italy represents: wealth, comfort and a warmer climate. But something unexpected happens. When the mother of a former orphan returns to the orphanage to claim her son — a friend of Vanya's, also adopted by Italians — she's treated harshly, only adding to the torment of losing her son forever. Clearly, her appearance is bad for morale, which makes her bad for business. But the impression she makes upon Vanya is a lasting one. What if his own mother is undergoing a similar need to see him? The enormity of her loss confuses the orphans but inspires plucky Vanya, giving us the first real evidence that Vanya is something special.

Vanya embarks on a quest to find his mother before he's adopted and renamed, an act he equates with erasing his past. Numerous hurdles lie in front of him, foremost that he can't read. Thus The Italian becomes a story of self-discovery, an extraordinary tale of a seemingly ordinary boy who recovers his dignity through courage and perseverance. It's a journey that's thwarted at almost every turn: From the beginning, the other orphans envy Vanya's departure (hence his nickname), while the headmistress views his ambivalence as a threat to the home's stability. Golden boy or commodity, he's a symbol to them all.

Despite surprisingly low production values — the film has a distressed look reminiscent of '77, not '07, and subtitles are occasionally obscured and frequently misspelled — The Italian remains charmingly odd and strangely beautiful. Actual wards of an orphanage were used in the filming, giving the film the appearance of a documentary. It's a simple story, but one that's effective on numerous levels — a story of a boy who refuses to quit until he comes face to face with the woman who abandoned him.