May 7, 2007 · 6:30 PM
Cinema Nova Box Office
Movie review: 'The Italian' By Michael Phillips Tribune movie critic "The Italian" earns its happy ending like few other contemporary dramas concerned with the fate of a child. It puts you through hell for that ending, in fact, hell being modern-day Russia, the worst of its children's homes and the poverty-line conditions endured by its post-glasnost citizenry. This is wrenching melodrama of Dickensian proportions, but without epic sweep or period lushness. The picture stays focused on the plight of 6-year-old Vanya, a boy in search of his birth mother. He's played by Kolya Spiridonov, an actor whose wide eyes and air of raffish authority make him a Slavic spiritual cousin of both Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. As scripted by Andrei Romanov, Vanya is one of the chosen few. He has been showcased for adoption by his keepers, the unshaven orphanage headmaster (Yuri Itskov) and the shady broker who's really in charge, known as Madam (Maria Kuznetsova, reassuring one second, threatening the next). A well-to-do Italian couple seeks a son, and Vanya--healthy and bright--fits the 5,000-euro bill. But Vanya cannot give himself over to his future. His best friend in the orphanage is heartbroken to be passed over for adoption consideration, yet again. (There's a brief, heart-rending shot of the other boy unbuttoning his good shirt when he realizes he's not being showcased.) One day the distraught birth mother of one of the boys comes to the children's home, looking to reclaim her son. She's tossed out by the headmaster, and after a telling encounter with Vanya, she throws herself under a train, like Anna Karenina. (True to the film's tact and intelligence, we hear of this but don't see it.) All this gets the vulnerable Vanya thinking: Is my birth mother alive? Would she take me back? Thus begins one child's trek into the unknown, by foot, by train, all the while confronted with a world in which children grew up far too quickly. It is not hard to engage an audience with this subject matter, no matter how well or poorly it is handled: That's what happens when you deal in orphans and a dramatic cycle of separation and abandonment and peril. This particular filmmaker, however, working in an honest, documentary-like visual style, earns the suspense throughout. Director Andrei Kravchuk and cinematographer Alexander Burov make the harsh landscapes and decrepit interiors interesting and varied, without falsely dramatic set ups or lighting. The movie's many virtues add up incrementally, not the least of which is a quiet marvel of a score by composer Alexander Kneiffel (sometimes spelled Knaifel). It's beautiful and ghostly and subtle, the minor-key piano lines evoking a world of emotions, obliquely. "The country's going downhill," says one of Vanya's protectors. Everything we've seen up to the climax in "The Italian" bears this out--yet the film contains no purely villainous characters. Nor does it ennoble anyone's strength through suffering. Well, perhaps it does a bit, with Vanya. I suppose I'd argue with the final shot of the picture, both visually and what we're hearing on the soundtrack; it might be too much, or the wrong sort of redemption. But it's hard to argue with its impact, just as it's hard to resist the overall impact of "The Italian."