Despite its title, The Italian is a Russian film from director Andrei Kravchuk (The Christmas Miracle) and Russian TV writer Andrei Romanov. Its title is derived from the nickname bestowed upon 6-year-old orphan Vanya Solntsev (newcomer Kolya Spiridonov) by his fellow orphans when he’s slated to be adopted by an Italian couple. The film is an odd, beguiling little movie—about two parts Dickens (with some Dickensian Chaplin thrown in) to one part Italian neorealist cinema.
The story is certainly like something out of Dickens. An appealing little boy at a grim orphanage balks at an advantageous adoption after a chance meeting with the birth mother (Dariya Lesnikova) of his recently adopted best friend. Meeting the distraught woman—and learning the next day that she either deliberately or accidentally fell in front of a train and died—convinces Vanya that he has to find his own real mother in case she has regretted her choice and now wants to find him. With this in mind, he channels all his energies into discovering who she is and where she lives, with an eye toward escaping and finding her. The world of plucky orphans and heartless institutions is pure Dickens, but the connection goes deeper.
As with many of Dickens’ novels, The Italian uses its story to bring to light the social problems of its day. Among other things, Dickens was one of the great propagandists of his era, which led to him having the official Karl Marx seal of approval. Naturally, this—along with his episodic (or cinematic) story structure—made Dickens a kind of soul mate for Sergei Eisenstein and other early Soviet filmmakers. The Soviet Union may be gone, but that legacy lingers, and surfaces here in a film that sets out not only to spotlight the corruption of the Russian adoption business and the orphanages themselves, but to protest the idea that the only way to a better life is to leave Russia. The irony here, of course, lies in the fact that all this is an outgrowth of a Soviet cinema that would itself never have been allowed to voice such criticism. (The often governmentally censured Eisenstein would doubtless be pleased.)
None of this is to say that The Italian is simply stiff-backed propaganda. Like Dickens—and later Chaplin—Kravchuk and Romanov never lose sight of telling an entertaining and moving story with engaging characters. The social criticism is there, but it’s simply allowed to be. Even the bad guys aren’t wholly unlikable, though “Madam” (Mariya Kuznetsova, Russian Ark) comes close and is humanized mostly through sheer ineptitude and the strange, long-suffering devotion of her right-hand man and apparent lover, Grisha (Nikolai Reutov), who turns out to be better than he seems in the film’s final section.
Kravchuk presents a cold, forbidding world where even the interiors are perpetually shrouded in a kind of misty whiteness, where the only warmth comes from the characters themselves—the basically well-intentioned sot of an orphanage director (Yuri Itskov); the independent-minded girl Irka (Olga Shuvalova), who helps Vanya escape; Vanya’s friend Anton (Dima Zemlyanko), who envies Vanya’s adoption etc. It’s only when the film enters its final third—with Vanya’s trip to find his mother—that the sun begins to break through in Kravchuk’s Russia, and his previously subdued color scheme bursts into vibrant life.
If the film ultimately moves into the realm of the Hollywoodized fairy tale, it’s still hard to fault—not in the least because we so badly want to see Vanya get something out of his game struggle for happiness and identity. There’s a sense that both the viewer and he have earned it—and Kravchuk brilliantly evokes the ending of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) rather than indulging in shameless feel-good gooeyness, making the resolution as artistic as it is satisfying. Rated PG-13 for thematic material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke