The Italian

The Italian

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

It could almost be Dickensian London, except for the bleak rural landscape and the language but, in many ways, The Italian shares a lot of themes with Oliver Twist.

In a down-at-heel orphanage, in the Russian countryside, snow is falling and the kids dream of getting a real family. They have their pictures snapped and the resulting images are sent abroad so that childless foreigners can take their pick of the bunch. One six-year-old, Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), is dubbed ‘The Italian’ of the title after a couple from Italy take a shine to him.

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Although life in the orphanage isn’t outright cruel, it represents a hard-knock life for its inhabitants. The owner is a lush, who relies on selling the kids to keep things up and running, which means it falls to the older children to look after the little ones. Wideboy Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko) is the leader of the pack, well-versed in artful dodging and his girlfriend Natasha (Polina Vorobieva) turns tricks with truckers for cash – though since this is a film aimed at older children, this is implied rather than shown.

Of course, there are whispers of what happens to boys when they leave; that some may fall foul of an organ thief rather than going into a happy ever after. And when a mum of a boy already long-adopted turns up at the orphanage in search of him, Vanya’s thoughts become troubled. What if his mum isn’t as dead as the dodo after all, but is really just waiting for a chance to come and claim him? His hope quickly becomes an all-consuming desire as he plots to find out and embarks on a dangerous odyssey into the city. He not only faces trials ahead but is also chased by the orphan wheeler-dealer Madam (Mariya Kuznetsova), who sold his cutes for cash, and her tough-but-dim henchman Sery (Sasha Sirotkin).

Andrei Kravchuk has achieved many great things with his debut film. His direction is excellent – cleverly enhancing the feeling of bleakness and separation experienced by the children by way of shots through glass, and always making sure that Vanya looks as small as possible compared to his surroundings. The landscapes are unremittingly bleak but this only serves to make the glow of Vanya’s hope all the brighter and draws the audience to him like a moth to a flame.

Kravchuk also elicits wonderful performances all round, from the comic relief of Madam and Sery’s hapless chasing – which shows remarkable restraint in holding back from farce – to the startlingly moving performance from Spiridonov in the central role. All are believable from start to last. This was made for children (kids of eight and older would probably get the most from it – although the current presentation with subtitles, rather than dubbing, may be a problem for younger ones) but it is one of those rare breeds – a family film. It is hard-hitting, but with none of the fake, over-the-top violence of Hollywood fare, and packs an emotional punch without dredging it with sugar. A film to watch with your children and talk about afterwards without the whisper of merchandising.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2007
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The Italian packshot
A Russian orphan, due to be adopted by an Italian family, goes in search of his real mum.
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Festivals:

EIFF 2007

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If you like this, try:

Oliver Twist