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Russian Roulette

Gripping moments make 'The Italian' worth seeing, despite some slow parts


Here's what I love about Russians: If you ask an American what the greatest country in the world is, no doubt, the reply will be "America." Never mind that fewer than one-third of Americans have ever been to another country; they just know, in their heart of hearts, that theirs is the best. Now ask a Russian the same question, and the answer will be something like, "I don't know. Is stupid question. Not Russia."

Russian modesty stands in stark contrast to American overbearing pride. And what's not to be modest about? They lost the Cold War; their country is falling apart; and if you say anything funny about President Vladimir Putin, you wind up with dioxin-face or a radioactive brunch.

The Italian, a Russian film about how crummy Russia is, really captures both the truth and the attitude of the post-communist motherland. Every set has crumbling paint; weeds sprout through cracks in the muddy sidewalks; even the adults look like they're wearing hand-me-down clothes.

Into this bleak environment come a couple of Italians who want to adopt a Russian baby, because, really, even kids know you should do what you can to get out of Russia. But 6-year-old Vanya, the tow-headed moppet that they pick, has some reservations. Apparently, he likes his double-Dickensian existence living in the orphanage and working for a small gang of thieves.

Vanya (played by with expert cuteness by Kolya Spiridonov) is also spooked, because right after his friend Mukhin got adopted, Mukhin's mother appeared and wanted him back. Afraid that the same thing will happen to him, he resists the baby dealers who want to peddle him off for 6,000 euros to some stylish Italians who know nothing of Slavic self-loathing.

Ultimately, he runs away on a wild adventure that has the tension of a Jafar Panahi movie. You know, Jafar Panahi, the Iranian auteur who made The Mirror and The White Balloon, films about children off on their own in the world? OK, whatever. It's like that.

It's also a lot like American films from the '70s. It's shot in dismal colors on grainy film; the story has a down-to-earth, human feel to it; and the tension comes not from guns, grand feats and heroism, but from the painfully conveyed content of the character's lives.

The muted color palette and gloomy emotional state are nicely reflected in the sparse, plinky piano music that drifts in and out. Nothing in this film overpowers the story, and it shows that subtlety of this sort can be just as engaging and tense as high-powered action.

Except where it isn't. In spite of the film's short length (90 minutes), it drags terribly in the middle. This is inexcusable, because director Andrei Kravchuk shows, in the final third, that he really knows how to cut a film for effect. When Vanya boards a train by himself, encounters some bullies and hides in the grimy streets of post-Soviet Russia, every moment is gripping. It's like watching the world's cutest kitten walk through a minefield in search of a flower.

So for that, The Italian is worth it. Sorry if you have to sit through 20 minutes or so of Vanya deciding what he wants to do. In that middle third, Kravchuk makes a classic mistake: In order to show indecision, he has nothing happen. Rather than showing the character's indecision, it just shows the director's indecision.

Ultimately, though, Kravchuk is a tremendously promising director. (This is his second movie.) He has an Eric Rohmer-like sense for intimate filmmaking, and the whole movie has an overwhelming air of disintegration about it. A nation that's selling off its children is clearly in terrible shape, and the fact that a Russian filmmaker would show that, and paint his homeland in grimy colors and dilapidated settings, tells you something important: Russians aren't pompous dicks about their country. We could learn a lot from them.

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