Despite its title, The Italian is Russian. The title derives from a nickname Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), the film's 6-year-old protagonist, is given by his fellow "inmates" at a rural Russian orphanage after he is selected for adoption by an Italian couple. The couple comes to visit the orphanage to meet Vanya. They seem to be lovely, warm, prosperous people. They leave with a promise to come back for Vanya in two months, as soon as the paperwork clears. The other kids, with a mix of rueful envy and empathetic admiration, immediately start calling Vanya "the Italian."
The adoption is a gift -- Vanya's a lucky one. But the two-month gap is enough time to instill doubts in him. First, there's gossip from another boy about "good foreigners and bad foreigners," with the bad ones allegedly adopting children only to harvest their organs. This doesn't do too much to shake Vanya's interest in being adopted. But soon after, a woman shows up at the orphanage searching for the son she'd abandoned years before. But she's too late. A foreign couple has recently adopted him. That night, as the boys in Vanya's room are being put to bed, one boy asks the older girl who is turning off the lights, "But how will she find [her son] now?" And as every boy in the room looks up, it's clear they're all really thinking the same thing: Will my mother come back looking for me?
Vanya worries about this, and despite constant counsel from older kids that his real mother will never come and he is very lucky to be adopted, Vanya decides to pursue his birth mother at all costs, which includes an escape from the orphanage.
The Italian is yet another foreign-language flick that's a nod-to-neorealism children's story. These types of movies make up an unusually large percentage of foreign-language movies that get widespread American distribution. Perhaps it's because the plight of a child has a particularly universal emotional grip, one that cuts through language and cultural barriers in ways that other stories don't. And perhaps it's because Hollywood studios, and, really, the U.S. indie scene as well, seem incapable of making these kinds of movies.
But as gripping as Vanya's personal story is and as pure and charismatic a performance as bright-eyed, towheaded young Spiridonov gives, The Italian works best in terms of its bigger picture: its detailed, absorbing depiction of a self-sustaining, Dickensian kid culture within the orphanage (one ruled with an iron-fisted collectivism that seems to be culturally specific) and the bleak post-collapse Russian backdrop the story plays out against.
As the story progresses, a disconnect may emerge between the viewpoint of the film and your own reaction. Director Andrei Kravchuk seems to endorse Vanya's flight, perhaps instilling in the story a symbolic notion of a broken country healing old wounds. The adoption broker Vanya flees from is a self-serving, low-key Cruella De Vil type, but the adoption itself seems to be very good for him, more so than he -- or perhaps Kravchuck -- realizes. For much of Vanya's journey, I found myself helplessly rooting for his capture.
Opens Friday, April 6th
Studio on the Square