2005: Andrei Kravchuk
Rated PG-13 – 90 minutes
Vault Rating: 8
“The Italian” is dark like Dickens. Like much of the great Victorian’s most notable fiction, this film speaks of destitute children and bleak houses in a hopeless social milieux.
The only difference is that this time the setting is a cold, remote village in Russia where a run down orphanage is our window into, if not the worst of times, some pretty darn bad ones.
Scores of children populate the crumbling facility. The older ones are hardened toughs who work the black market or prostitute themselves, while the director engages in the selling of the young ones to rich foreigners.
Six-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spirdonov) is one such desirable child who has been sold, through the offices of a villainous middle woman, to a rich pair of Italians, hence Vanya’s nickname of the title. Vanya’s friends are thrilled for him. What could be better than leaving such a place for a Mediterranean lap of luxury?
But Vanya is troubled by a meeting with a regretful woman who seeks to recover the child she once abandoned. She is turned away from the orphanage — her child has long since been sold off — and word later comes that she’s committed suicide. The news tears through the orphanage as kids internalize this information.
Vanya yearns for his birth mother and decides to flee the orphanage in a desperate gambit to find her. In his flight, he has only scraps of information with which to navigate a dangerous and mysterious world made more malevolent by those who would capture and sell him.
The principal antagonist is a comfortable but wheedling “Madam” (Maria Kuznetsova), who is a bureaucratic middle-man in the child trade. She has received a handsome down-payment on Vanya and must recover the child once he is discovered missing. This sets off a good game of cat and mouse as Madam pursues Vanya from town to town, pulling the plot and the viewer ever closer to home.
The canvas on which they travel is as foreign as anything I’ve seen that is not fantasy. The boy, using his hardened wits, determination and sometimes the kindness of strangers, overcomes some scary situations. And Kravchuk, by adjusting the sound mix early to emphasize background noise and chatter, seems to be asking us to appreciate Vanya’s world anecdotally, by looking at the surroundings rather than the principals.
Once we have firmly got hold of the picture frame, the rest of the picture begins to glide by in the ways of a decent “pursuit movie” (The boy pursues his mother: The villains pursue the boy.) with an astonishing amount of heart.
By now we should recognize we’re under a familiar spell. Film and literature are full of strays, misfits and orphans and their stories almost always seem to work on us. “The Italian” works particularly well.
The careworn Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spiridonov) sits in the window of a crumbling orphanage and contemplates running away in today’s Video Vault feature: “The Italian”
A few notes before we travel on. Props to the spies who have turned us on to the Sci-Fi Western, “Serenity” and its failed original television series, “Firefly.” The film stands out among the genre, simultaneously using and blowing away Star Wars and Star Trek archetypes. The short lived series, now alive on DVD, is a real blast. I cannot imagine how this series did not survive on television. It is among my favorites.
Also, I recently took in some older documentaries by acclaimed director Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man,” “Invincible,” “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”), mostly because I sensed homage on the part of our friend, Levi Abrino, whose film short “The Lonely Bliss of Cannonball Luke” is available locally as a free rental. Herzog’s “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner” follows the real-life story of Walter Steiner, who lives a double life as a daredevil ski-jumper and introspective wood carver. It is always fun to know a filmmaker’s antecedents.
Until next time, when we might be getting into “Firefly” in depth, enjoy!