King of Thieves (Czech Republic 2004, 101 min, dir: Ivan Fila. cast: Lazar Ristovski, Yasha Kultiasov, Oktay Ozdemir, Katharina Thalbach, Julia Khanverdieva)
Mixing romanticism and misery was always been a specialty of Eastern Europe. The excuse was grimness enforced by Communism. The Communists are long gone but the filmmaking conventions persist.
Jan Sverak, who directed Koyla, is a leading proponent. Ivan Fila, who directed King of Thieves and Lea before, is an eager student. Both films are about children who undergo traumatic experiences as they experience the injustices of the world.
Barbu (Yasha Kultiasov) and his older sister Mimma (Julia Khanverdieva), children of a Ukrainian peasant, are sold to a traveling circus promoter for a better life in Berlin. The girl is forced into prostitution and the boy is trained to be a pickpocket. Caruso (Lazar Ristovski) is the ringmaster overseeing it all.
He’s a mixture of charm, magic, and brutality that is counterbalanced by his drug-addicted girlfriend Julie (Katharina Thalbach) and Marcel (Oktay Ozdemir), the boy who befriends Barbu and tutors him in the art of thievery.
What keeps this pudding together is Caruso’s swings form demonic to delightful. One moment he is whipping the boys and threatening them if they don’t go out and get more money. The next he is doing magic tricks and taking Barbu to the circus.
The photography is by Vladimir Smutny, a seasoned pro with colored gels. He’s from the paint with light school of Eastern Europeans who are time-warp practitioners; throwbacks to when Hollywood cinematographers also believed that a shadow was something without value unless you bathed it in color. The effect heightens the romantic feeling of a film whose plot is pretty grim.
But the combination of grimness and romanticism is the reason King of Thieves stands out and is worth a look. The other curious reason to have a look is the production shut down in the middle for lack of money. It was re-started two years later. Two years is a long time for two rapidly growing kids. Interesting to watch Barbu and Mimma as they take a jump in size and maturity not entirely due to their new professions as a whore and a thief.