Though the story it tells is emotional and engaging, Judge Bill Gibron doesn't believe this 2005 Russian import ends on a particularly powerful note.
A Young Boy's Incredible Journey to Find His Family
It's a banner day for young Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov). The local adoption agent is coming to his rural Russian orphanage with a pair of prospective parents who are just dying to meet him. If all goes well, he'll be on his way to a new home in Italy in a little less than two months. Naturally, the rest of the facility is jealous of this chosen child, but Vanya has friends in the long-term adolescent residents. He hangs out with a group made up of teenage thieves, protection-prodding muscle, and generous jailbait prostitutes. As the day of his departure grows closer, Vanya starts having second thoughts. After meeting up with the mother of another former ward, he suddenly sees some unfinished personal business. He cannot travel to Italy unless he's sure his birth mother is dead—or uninterested in her abandoned offspring. After locating an address in a far-off town, Vanya plots to run away. Thanks to some help from his delinquent pals, he boards a train and prepares to follow his fate. Either his mother will embrace him and ask for forgiveness or he'll be turned away, destined to live a life as the latest member of The Italian citizenry.
As unsatisfyingly schizophrenic as a foreign film can be, Andrei Kravchuk's Italianetz (English translation: The Italian) is two-thirds of a great movie totally scuttled by its derivative last act. Up until the moment our vagabond hero, little Vanya (a fascinatingly open Kolya Spiridonov) hops a train and heads for "home," we are intrigued by this look at life in post-Perestroika Russia. Set in 2002, we see a nation corrupted by criminal rackets, unrelenting poverty, and a sudden awareness that foundlings have a value as human chattel on the world market. We then get the story set-up: a devious baby merchant, passing herself off as a compassionate completer of families, uses a country orphanage as her inventory, picking the best candidates for placement out of the hundreds of abandoned children warehoused there. Some are so old that they have reverted to living like their own hellish hobo clan, overseeing the younger kids in the facility while committing adult crimes like robbery and prostitution in town. Vanya is eventually picked out by an Italian family, but the sudden appearance of a friend's mother produces some unsettling inner issues. He desperately wants to know the fate of his own family, and it's this journey into the unknown red tape of semi-Soviet bureaucracy that propels our plot toward its anticlimactic end.
The first half of this film is indeed fascinating. While nothing is ever spelled out in clear, concise detail, we soon learn about Vanya's part in the underground teen crime ring, the juvenile hookers who exercise their budding maternal instincts on the boy, and the gregarious gang leader who just wants the delinquents under his tutelage to find a good family and leave. Even as he's administering his own brand of thieves' honor (usually involving a large leather belt and a beating), he's making sure everyone comprehends the benefits of being adopted. While there are other aspects of this opening act that come across as farcical (the constantly drunk head of the facility) and flat (our bullying baby seller fluctuates wildly between greedy and grating), we still marvel at the snapshot of post-millennial Russia that Kravchuk provides. His gray, lifeless backdrop, like a clichéd depiction from some Western propaganda, actually helps underline the themes at play. All Vanya wants is acceptance. The Italians paid for it, but before he agrees, he wants to make sure his mother (if still alive) really rejected him. He needs that kind of closure before accepting his bought-and-paid-for contentment.
But as his obsession with finding his family grows more intense, our patience with this plot point weakens. The motivation for his journey is understandable, but not very beneficial or believable. Vanya seems really excited about being chosen, but the whole morose missing-mother angle seems sort of tacked on. We never understand if Vanya is really serious about reuniting or just curious if his parent still wants him. This makes the whole train travel and city wandering section seem like a waste. We're not so much desperate for our hero to succeed as we are eager for the eventual denouement. While the setting and the situation might appear interesting and unique, this is really nothing more than a Soviet Home Alone, and Vanya is Kevin sans the pantomime catch-gesture. When we finally get to the finale and its attempted twist, the results feel bereft of creative spark. It's as if Kravchuk couldn't find a way out of the schmaltz and saccharine and just decided to go ahead and wallow in it. Some may find a minor tear welling up in the corner of their eye, but most will simply slump their shoulders and wonder, "Is that all there is?" Had it kept up with its distinct perspective, had we been given more of the day-in-the-life material and less of the muted, mechanical storytelling, this would be a great film. As it stands, The Italian is merely good, although said status is borderline at best.
Sony Classic Pictures gives this Academy Award entry (it didn't make the final five) a nice DVD release, complete with a gorgeous 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image and a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The colors (what little there are) look very good, and the details are sharp and easily comprehended. As for the dialogue, the actors deliver their lines in an easy to grasp style, and the English subtitles are fine, if slightly intrusive in their size and regularity. Sadly, we received absolutely no added content outside a collection of standard trailers. A small amount of social and governmental context could have helped us understand how harsh conditions really are for orphans in the former Soviet bloc.
If you go in expecting an epic of emotional and humanitarian significance, The Italian will definitely disappoint. If, however, you significantly lower your anticipation and merely let the movie unfold before you, you'll more than likely enjoy what you see. Andrei Kravchuk shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker. His movie is a little less impressive.
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