Set against the harsh backdrop of a Russian orphanage Andrei Kravchuk’s sophomore feature The Italian traces the harrowing and moving story of a young boy whose life trajectory makes a sudden shift when an Italian family decide they want to adopt him.
The film opens with an Italian couple travelling through harsh Russian winter conditions to visit a remote orphanage and meet with their prospective new child. Upon arrival we see, along with them, an impoverished facility that exudes both the grim desperation and creative resourcefulness of the human instinct for survival. The “director” of the orphanage seems barely less dejected than his young charges and doesn’t really seem to be running the place. As the camera follows parts of the children’s daily routine, we are quickly made aware that these orphans organise their own lives – the older ones both exploiting and looking after the younger as they all struggle to stay fed and warm. Many of the children take on odd jobs – making money doing what they can – with one of the older girls engaging in prostitution as her means of survival.
So when this Italian family arrives and decides that Vanya is the son for them (note: Vanya is the Russian familiar term for Ivan) everyone is at once happy for him and at the same time envious that he has been given the chance to escape. They even coin him “the Italian” (hence the film’s title) to signify his change of fortune. Initially he seems to be going along with this scheme but when the mother of another boy – who has already been adopted out – arrives, seeking her long-gone son, Vanya gets to thinking about his own mother and where he might be from. Defying everybody’s expectations for him, as well as their world weary cynicism, he launches a personal crusade in search of his own mother – whoever and wherever she might be.
Based on a true story, The Italian illustrates the harsh realities of impoverished life in a place like Russia. It also highlights the stubborn determination of the human spirit and the odds that we are able to overcome. The journey does not go smoothly for Vanya, he is hunted down by the adoption agent – who turns out to be somewhat more mercenary than we might first have thought – attacked by other homeless kids and left to fend for himself on the cold streets of a city that he doesn’t know. Still, amidst a sea of callous unconcern, he also discovers pockets of kindness and unexpected assistance.
Beautifully shot, and played? This film is both. But its real strength is in the emotional weight it conveys. The performances of the predominantly young cast all ring true and you can’t help but be pulled into this boy’s story as he grimly fights his way along a path which seems unlikely to yield much of a reward even if he achieves his goal. In this setting everyone is so resigned to their fate they cannot understand why anyone would choose not to take a guaranteed way out (with the Italian family), even if it means foregoing the chance to reconnect with your real family. As far as the others are concerned – orphans and adults alike – this boy’s family has already deserted him and left him to the mercies of the world. But Vanya stubbornly clings to his hope which acts as his anchor, and ultimately, Vanya’s sense of hope buoys the audience.
The Italian takes subject matter, that is no stranger to Hollywood films, and moulds it into a truly emotionally engaging piece of cinema whilst avoiding the usual melodrama and temptation to trade on the cute factor of child actors. This is a gritty and gripping film that will appeal to serious movie fans and lovers of good stories alike.
DVD Info + Special Features
This is a vanilla release with only the feature and trailers. Still, the picture and sound quality are both up to scratch and the quality of the feature more than justifies owning this disc.
» Region 4 PAL
» Anamorphic Widescreen 16:9
» Language: Russian (Dolby Digital 2.0)
» Subtitles: English
» Original theatrical trailer
» Other Madman trailers
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – Contains medium level violence
Duration: 95 mins
Director: Andrei Kravchuk (2006)
Actors: Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Kuznetsova, Nikolai Reutov, Yuriy Itskov, Denis Moiseenko, Andrei Yelizarov, & Polina Vorobyova.
Release Date: Available Now