In 6 year-old Vanyas (Kolya Spiridonov) Russia, children are considered lucky just to know the names of their parents. As the intrepid runaway in Andrei Kravchuk's bittersweet drama The Italian, Vanya marches to the beat of his own brass band. The death of a young mother looking for a son she abandoned years ago at Vanyas dilapidated orphan-emporium is the catalyst for a road trip on his lonesome to look for a mother hes never known. Director Kravchuk consciously weaves urgent post-Soviet rhetoric and themes of individual identity owing to Ann Holms WWII novella, I Am David, into a watered down borsch of dramatic and emotional compromise. The film is both comic and tragic, and in a consistently plaintive world of insights and allusions that considers the very serious proposition of child trafficking and Russias underclass.
Eluding both the spiritual richness of I Am David and the childlike perspectives of Viva Cuba, Kravchuk gazes upon his subject with a measure of detached sensitivity and depressive realism that never coddles its precocious and cherubic lead, avoiding the ingratiating manner of a Roberto Benigni film. But it also never truly invests much in him by way of personal danger and coats his eventual struggle with an almost divine sense of security. By engaging in a subject matter as heinous as the economy of young lives and then bogging it down with familiar levity, it never acknowledges the film for what it is and perhaps what it could have been.
Vanyas nondescript background becomes a synthesis of the disturbingly harsh portrait of ingrained subsistence that Vanya and his cadre of car washers, thieves, prostitutes and various other guttersnipes who live and work; pulling their earnings into a coffer for the good of their collective and keeping the spirit of socialism alive. They situate themselves in and around the commune surrounding the orphanage run by the pragmatic and cynical Madam (Maria Kuznetsova) and the effete but sympathetic louse of a headmaster (Yuri Itskov). Intriguingly, the final half of the film as its inevitable road trip begins segues Vanya as an affront to the fatalism that infects the rest of Russias vastly underprivileged youth as he proves himself to be more resilient and self-sufficient.
Kravchuk find a way to the heart en route to the mind. He envelops an air of protective affection for his characters, including those who hinder our enterprising young heros quest for maternal solicitude, an instinct made memorable by the films assertion that a nurturing Russia can be cultivated by putting the onus of that responsibility on the countrys women. For all its discursiveness, its final shot obliterates the acquired bleakness and severity of the film and leaves us in its afterglow of hope and grace.