One of the many ways contemporary Russia seems on the verge of imploding is visible in the new film "The Italian," directed by a first-time feature filmmaker named Andrei Kravchuk. It's set in an orphanage, a dismal place on the edge of an unnamed town; dirty snow fills the courtyard, runoff makes muddy ravines in the street outside the gate. Children of all ages are there under the supposed supervision of a weak and corrupt director who takes money from a woman adoption-fixer, who as the film opens brings a wealthy Italian couple in to look at children and choose one to take home.
Six-year-old Vanya, played by a wonderful child named Kolya Spiridonov, is the one they choose, and so all the kids start calling him 'the Italian.' But they don't understand that he's not interested in going to Italy, or making some new kind of life. What he wants is to find his birth mother, the woman who gave him up as a baby.
Life at the orphanage is not quite what we would call Dickensian - that is, there are no mean and cruel authorities denying the children food or clothing. It is actually run by a gang of teenage boys, boys who were never adopted and have spent their lives there, who will soon be cast loose as they age out of the place, and who maintain a kind of order by threats and beatings of the weaker and younger children. They even have a designated whore, Sery (Sasha Sirotkin), who has to go out every day to stop trucks and perform sex acts and bring back the money. But Sery understands Vanya; she teaches him to read by using his one book - "Winnie the Pooh" - and then she helps him with his dream. He's heard of the city where his mother lives, and even has an old address for her. So when the fixer and her driver come to pick up Vanya, she's already put him on a train that just might get him there.
"The Italian" is a movie that I sometimes think of as what you might call a 'festival film.' That is, it has no chance of making any kind of impression commercially, certainly not in the United States, and yet it is very much a work of film art that deserves to be seen by anyone interested in the art form. And because the American distribution system doesn't work for films like this, it will never reach any kind of audience other than being programmed at one or another film festival. Even if it becomes available on DVD, it would take some prior knowledge or particular interest for someone to find it and screen it. With the death of "Premiere" magazine, which although it had become an upscale fanzine still had Glenn Kenny as its house critic, who kept his eye out for movies like "The Italian," pretty much all that's left for interested filmgoers are "Film Comment," "Cineaste," and the occasional note in The New Yorker and The Nation. Sad but true.