The Italian (2005)

[23 May 2007]

By Kate Spatola

The narrative tentacles of Charles Dickens extend to modern day Russia in the overlooked 2004 feature film debut of director Andrei Kravchuk.  Centered on the story of one young waif as he navigates the isolated emotional terrain of orphanage life, The Italian is an appealing cinematic fairytale tempered by the harsh and chilling realities of international adoption.

As is often the case with childhood fables The Italian begins its tale with such narrative restraint that precious few viewers will not immediately grow suspicious of events to come.  Traversing the endlessly gray, icy backcountry of northern Russia, we are immediately introduced to a well-off Italian couple.  The duo is clearly brimming with eager anticipation and nervous energy, but their trip is not one of casual sightseeing and adventure.  Rather, we quickly learn they have come to Russia in the hope of arranging and finalizing the adoption of a young child. 

The Italian couple is being ushered around by an unscrupulous adoption broker who is simply, dauntingly, referred to only as Madam (Maria Kuznetsova).  With a demeanor of strength and unchecked confidence, it is clear that Madam’s authority in negotiating and securing adoptions for foreign visitors goes unrivaled in this depressed rural region.  Her ruthless professionalism barely masks the motivation of her personal greed and overrides any personal consideration she may have for the young orphans.  Madam soon delivers the two Italians to a thoroughly depressing state-run institution where she facilitates the formal introduction of a potential young adoptee.

Upon arrival at the orphanage, Madam is greeted by a throng of children who view her as both their only link to the outside world (i.e., freedom) and as a force of fear and unspoken menace that is not to be crossed.  Her visits draw the clamoring attention of the young orphans who desperately wish to distinguish themselves and earn her favor.  Apart from the fray, however, a young boy observes the routine cacophony with forced detachment and thinly disguised longing.  Whatever distance he may put between himself and the dream of escaping orphanage life it is clear he yearns to find a “real” home.

Moments later the same boy, six-year old Vanya (an irrepressibly spirited Kolya Spiridonov), is surprised when he is summoned for an introduction by Madam to the couple.  The meeting is merely a formality as the two are quite keen to adopt Vanya and return home to Italy.  With the decision made, the only thing that lay ahead for Vanya and his new parents is a brief wait while all of the necessary bureaucratic procedures are fulfilled.

Word quickly spreads and the other children take to calling Vanya “The Italian”.  In so doing they give voice to all of the fear, jealousy, happiness, and sadness that continually exists in the home.  Vanya, even at his young age, knows that he is meant to feel grateful for the impending adoption but his reservations and the tenacious yearning he has to return to his (“real”) family are clearly marked and demonstrated.  It is this – his internal conflict between the promise of a new life in sunny Italy and the longing for a reunion with his birth mother – which drives the central action of The Italian.

A chance visit by another (since adopted) child’s mother prompts Vanya to search out the woman who long ago abandoned him.  With the help of Irka (Olga Shuvalova) – an older female orphan who favors him – Vanya soon escapes.  Armed with little more than the name of his first orphanage, Vanya’s journey is as complex and daunting as the vast Russian landscape he is forced to navigate.

Upon discovery of his escape, Madam and her dutiful lackey, Sery (Sasha Syrotkin), quickly hop into their black SUV and begin their hunt for the child.  Madam’s motivation comes not for Vanya’s personal welfare, but, rather, from the potential loss of profit his escape will result in.  While Madam is clearly the central villain of the film, one feels that the force of her menace is not borne from direct evil but more from cumulative frustration and lack of opportunities.  Like the rest of the incompetent, corrupt, and defeated adult caretakers portrayed in The Italian, Madam is herself a (culpable) casualty of a broken, burdensome, and inhumane system.

Tales of young orphans abandoned, brutalized, and tenaciously clinging to their silent dreams of hope are as well-worn and tired as any original galley of Oliver Twist that may still exist today.  So enduring are the themes inherent in such stories that for writers and filmmakers alike the allure of exploring what is, by now, a thoroughly generic narrative premise seems too irresistible to pass up.  Luckily, The Italian manages to be both a worthy addition to the genre and a genuinely heartfelt, quiet (if at times too quiet) and charming film fantasy.

In his first feature film, Russian director Andrei Kravchuk has confidently blended the harsh realism of orphanage life with the simple and eternally hopeful fantasy of belonging.  Smartly forgoing the urge to moralize on the sinister politics behind Vanya’s adoption, Kravchuk and his cinematographer, Alexander Burov, do a wonderful job of allowing the bleak and expansive landscape of northern Russian to speak for the isolation, exploitation, and challenges that face children in the high-stakes game of international adoption.

Vanya’s journey homeward may be a flight of fancy, but his story remains all too real.

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