The Italian



Sony Pictures Classics

Combining the influences of Italian neorealism with Dickensian melodrama, Andrei Kravchuk's simultaneously tough-minded and sentimental "The Italian" is as bracing as it is moving. Russia's entry for the best foreign-language film Oscar, the film is playing in Los Angeles and New York before a national release.

The title of the film is somewhat misleading because its main character is actually Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), a 6-year-old Russian orphan boy living in a horrible children's home run by a corrupt and frequently drunken headmaster (Yuri Itskov) and his adoption broker, known as "Madam" (Mariya Kuznetsova).

When an obviously well-heeled Italian couple shows up and decides that they want to adopt the adorable youth, things seem to be looking up. That is, until Vanya becomes aware of a mother who has recently shown up at the orphanage in search of her child, only to discover that he is no longer there and untraceable. Fearing that he, too, might miss the opportunity to be reunited with his birth parents, the boy runs away, with Madam's henchman (Sasha Sirotkin) in hot pursuit.

Skillfully conveying the atmosphere of squalor and menace facing Vanya in the orphanage and on Russia's mean streets, the filmmaker also provides a vivid portrait of the underbelly of Russian society as well as shining a light on the issues of international adoption that have recently become so prevalent.

Adding greatly to the film's impact is the wonderfully natural and engaging performance by Spiridonov. Conveying a vast range of emotions with a facial expressiveness that Greta Garbo in her prime would have envied, the young actor makes his character's plight so moving that the screenplay's many contrivances can be easily ignored.