By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Andrei Kravchuk
Cast: Kolya Spiridonov
The Italian, a modestly mounted, emotion-driven tale of international adoption courtesy of Russia, will either be Angelina Jolie’s absolute favorite movie of the year or will flat-out horrify the curvy child magnet. I can’t decide which.
The film--Russia’s official entry for this year’s Oscar race--picks up in a small Russian village, the kind of dreary sunless setting we’ve seen since ... well, since Russian film was invented. There, in a rundown orphanage bursting at the seams with unwanted children, is Vanya Slontsev (Kolya Spiridonov), the sort of toe-headed 6-year-old ragamuffin who would have made Dickens proud. When a well-to-do Italian couple arrives looking for a new addition to the family tree, Vanya is spit-shined, dressed and presented as the pride of Russia. The would-be parents fall in love with Vanya and offer to adopt him. Jealous of, but happy for, the lucky adoptee, Vanya’s fellow orphans quickly, teasingly nickname him “The Italian.”
But as the seemingly happy date of Vanya’s adoption looms closer, a doubt begins to grow in his young mind. What if, as some of the kids say, evil foreigners adopt kids to harvest their organs? A more realistic problem arises when the heartsick mother of a recently adopted orphan arrives at the facility drunkenly wailing for her lost son. What if Vanya’s real mother were to show up after he’s been carted off to Italy? How would she ever find him?
Stubborn, savvy and resourceful as a result of his hard-knock life, Vanya decides he needs to track down his real mother. In very short order, Vanya learns to read and enlists the help of the orphanage’s resident sneakthieves to break into the director’s file cabinet in search of his personal file. Armed with a possible address for his mother, Vanya runs away from the orphanage with the help of a sympathetic teenager. Vanya’s disappearance angers the orphanage’s head mistress, who is clearly making a tidy profit greasing the adoption wheels for wealthy foreigners. She and her thuggish lackey strike out in search of the wayward kid, who has taken to the rails like any good cinematic runaway. Will Vanya’s quest bear fruit or will the villainous bureaucrats overtake him?
Aside from its debt of gratitude to Charles Dickens, The Italian owes equal allegiance to Russian Neorealism. The film aspires to be as honest as it is grubby. While the cute young children at the orphanage vie for adoption, it’s clear that the older kids are lost causes. The teenagers among them have been left to fend for themselves via theft and prostitution. This is presented in a most matter-of-fact way. In this respect, the film does offer an accurate portrait of international adoption: the staggering number of parentless children, the poor living conditions, the monetary favoritism.
On a more subtle level, though, The Italian asks some harder questions. Wouldn’t it be better to keep kids in their own culture? Wouldn’t any child prefer his or her own natural parents to some well-meaning stranger? Should preference be given to the richest or the most famous wannabe parents? Watching Madonna snatch some poor African kid from his father in Malawi last year certainly raised these sorts of concerns.
The Italian doesn’t exactly provide clear-cut answers. It’s really more concerned with plucky young Vanya’s Peter Pan-ish quest for maternal love than debating whether or not the kid is better off as a fish-out-of-water in sunny Italy or a homegrown mama’s boy in dirt-poor Russia. In some ways, the film plays out like an old Disney adventure flick, with our resourceful young hero conveniently avoiding danger at every curve. The only thing that keeps this film from being a family flick, in fact, is its occasional hard-hitting truths. (That and the subtitles.) Still, one gets the impression that the filmmakers may be insulating viewers just a little too much, providing us with a shot of inspirational uplift every time things start to look too dark. As a result, the bittersweet ending doesn’t ring quite as true or as loud as it should.
Nonetheless, the film earns serious credit for not resorting to cheap, tear-jerking sentiment. A lesser filmmaker would have given us a weepy doe-eyed protagonist to curry audience sympathy. Andrei Kravchuk, a documentary and TV director making his feature debut, knows better. Uncute Vanya never so much as sheds a tear. He’s a tough kid with a stoic face and a streetwise sense of self-protection. This Russia may be a crumbling, corrupt wreck, but Vanya’s determined quest of self-discovery gives you at least a hopeful hint that this kid will make it no matter what.
There are moments when The Italian starts to look like Home Alone crossed with The Bicycle Thief. But the overall impression left by the film is one of veracity. Credit lifelike director Kravchuk and natural-born actor Spiridonov for their soulful, sympathetic portrait of prepubescent pluck.
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