Phil on Film Index

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review - The Italian (Italianetz)

Despite its title,
The Italian is not a story about an Italian character, and it is not set in Italy. Andrei Kravchuk's film – made in 2005 but only reaching these shores now – is actually a Russian tale, with the bulk of its opening half taking place in a shabby orphanage based in the middle of nowhere. This is where six year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) resides, along with other abandoned children of various ages, and a flurry of excitement explodes through the building's otherwise dingy halls whenever prospective parents appear, strangers arriving with the promise of a better life. The picture opens with a couple from Italy travelling towards the orphanage to find a child, and after examining the cream of the crop – as selected by the imposing 'Madame' (Mariya Kuznetsova) – they fall for the angelic Vanya, promising to return in a few months to complete the required paperwork.

This development earns Vanya the nickname "The Italian", and it also earns him the envy of his fellow orphans, each of whom wants nothing more than family of their own, but Vanya himself is a little unsettled by his good fortune. When a distraught mother turns up out of the blue, demanding to see the child she left there years previously, Vanya starts wondering about his own mother, and whether it's likely that she might come back to claim him one day? If there is a chance of being reunited with his natural mother, then surely the last place he'd want to be is in another country, no matter how nice life might be in Italy. So Vanya, resourceful little tyke that he is, decides to track down the woman himself, and this is where things start to get a bit silly.

Vanya persuades a kind-hearted teenage prostitute (Polina Vorobieva) to teach him how to read, a skill he picks up with remarkable ease, and then he's running around the place like a tiny Russian Jason Bourne, stealing his personal files and embarking on a perilous trek home, with "Madame" and her gormless sidekick in pursuit. The subsequent plot puts Vanya in all kinds of potentially perilous situations, but the level of danger we'd expect to feel as we watch an innocent orphan being chased through Russian backstreets never accrues. Kravchuk lets the film fall into a repetitive pattern; every few minutes Vanya will meet a stranger who is either benevolent or malevolent, and they will either endanger him or help him on his way. The whole film is given a chocolate-box coating by the rich visuals provided by Aleksandr Burov (Aleksandr Sokurov's regular cinematographer), and an absolutely ghastly score by Alexander Kneiffel, and these layers of aesthetic sweetness soften the film's edges.
The Italian retreats from anything resembling genuine hardship or threat in favour of playing safe and pushing the picture towards the mainstream – it's little wonder the film was Russia's official entry for last year's Oscars.

Two things kept me watching
The Italian when every instinct was telling me that it wasn't going to get any better. One factor in the picture's favour is the central performance from Spiridonov, who's appealingly cute while also being blessed with a toughness of spirit that makes it hard not to warm to him. It's a display which is worthy of joining the likes of Kolya Burlyayev, Aleksei Kravchenko and Ivan Dobronravov among the ranks of great Russian child performances. The only other hook which maintained my flagging interest in The Italian was a nagging question about Vanya's mother, and whether she would actually want to be reunited with the child she gave away years previously. Was our little hero's quest a futile one? Had he blown his chance of a happy life in Italy in the ill-conceived pursuit of a pipe dream? As far as I could see, that was pretty much the sole source of the film's tension, but I needn't have wondered; Kravchuk goes straight for the tear ducts in the film's final minutes, closing with a happy, soft-focus finale which is deeply underwhelming. The Italian is apparently based on a true story, but when subjected to this sort of treatment it can't help feeling anything other than resoundingly false.