The Italian (Russia 2005, 90 min, dir: Andrey Kravchuk, cast: Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Nikolai Reutov).
A six-year-old boy alone in the Russian countryside searching for his mother is not just another road movie. Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) is an unwanted child in an Oliver Twist style Russian children’s home.
He’s slated for adoption by a nice Italian couple when he gets the notion that his mother is alive somewhere out there and would take him back if only he could find her. With the help of the other kids, he sneaks a look at his records and finds clues to where to go.
True to Dickens, the older kids in the home have long resorted to stealing and prostitution to get by. Vanya’s survival skills are well honed. He steals his records and sets off by train and by foot over a giant swath of Russian countryside on a mission to find his natural mother. Pursuing him are Madam (Maria Kuznetsova ) and Grisha (Nikolai Reutov). (Some reviews call Grisha “Gregori,” go figure). To them Vanya represents a big fat payment from the Italian couple. But the kid is crafty at braving corrupt authorities and escaping assorted dangers.
Too bad this isn’t a kid’s movie. Pampered western kids might have a few nightmares seeing what Vanya goes through, but maybe it would teach them something about life. The movie is thoroughly adult and never lets up. The amazing thing about The Italian and about Charles Dickens is 150 years hasn’t made much difference. Kids are still mistreated, still sold like commodities by unscrupulous guardians, and still thrust into the horrors of life without, food, shelter, or parenting. The subject is often covered in documentaries but Andrey Kravchuk’s film is all the more real for being drama and (we assume) fiction.
But then, Dickens wrote fiction too, and his was more real and more effective than any reformer pamphleteering of the time. The Italian is a good example of the power of fiction to be real.