The Italian [Итальянец]
Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian tells the story of a six-year old Russian orphan, Vania, who when faced with the envious prospect of being adopted by an Italian couple, sets off in search of his biological mother. With the naïve hope that his mother mistakenly gave him up years ago, Vania demonstrates remarkable pluck and intelligence as he orchestrates an elaborate plan—including learning to read—in order to escape the clutches of Madam, a mercenary adoption broker, and return home.
Kravchuk, best known as a documentary filmmaker, creates a grim picture of contemporary Russia. Set in the middle of wintry Siberia, the destitute, unforgiving landscape is duplicated in the impecunious orphanage. Gray tones reflected in the muddy provincial surroundings, the peeling paint of ramshackle buildings, the kids’ ragged clothing, and the shadows that obscure our view emphasize a bleak existence. Vania, however, stands out as a bright exception and beacon of hope. Both his last name Solntsev (derived from the Russian for sun) and nickname (the Italian) suggest the possibility of a sunny destiny. Ironically, for the eponymous hero Mother Russia, not Italy, holds the promise of a happier, more joyous life, as the Soviet slogan goes. Vania’s unwillingness to give up on the mother (rodnaia mat') that abandoned him finds a parallel at the national level. Despite Russia’s unresolved social problems—poverty, corruption, alcoholism, violence, etc.—that make its citizens vulnerable, even disposable, Vania refuses to chose a better future and emigrate from his motherland (rodina). This righteous pursuit wins Vania the admiration and sympathy of the film’s positive characters and perhaps the viewer’s as well.
One interpretation of the film, articulated by producer Ol'ga Agrafenina, claims that The Italian is not about the international adoption of Russian children, but, rather, about free will and a person’s ability to control his fate. Indeed, Vania’s independence is extraordinary, perhaps even implausible. Nonetheless, it is hard not to root for him. Other characters’ attempts to control their fates, however, are not met with similar praise. Although the film documents provincial Russia’s merciless environs, it nonetheless judges harshly the difficult decisions that women make. Suggesting that Russian women reject their alleged maternal instincts, abandon children callously, and deserve a fate comparable to Anna Karenina, Kravchuk’s film is not hesitant to place blame. One male character implicitly incriminates Russian women when he disapprovingly comments: “Two hundred mothers have refused to be mothers” (Dvesti materei otkazalis' byt' materiami). Another says: “We don’t trade in children” (my ne torguem det'mi), a comment directed at Madam, a name with symbolic significance. Men in the film, conversely, tend to be portrayed as blameless and ineffectual, but kind.
Financed entirely by the Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, The Italian maintains an ideological stance that jives with Vladimir Putin’s position on international adoption. According to the U.S. State Department, until 2005 Americans adopted approximately 5,000 orphaned and abandoned Russians every year1. That number has decreased since Putin enacted laws that make it prohibitively difficult for adoption agencies to acquire the proper accreditation. Ostensibly meant to protect Russian children from murderous foreigners (rumors of several devastatingly unfortunate cases circulated widely), this stopgap measure reflects national pride. Despite a reliance on foreign money to subsidize their under-funded, state-run orphanage system—a system, in which young, healthy, and towheaded children represent lucrative pay-offs for adoption brokers, who grow rich while keeping orphanage headmasters, the police, and any number of other bureaucratic representatives dependent on piddling bribes that fortify insufficient salaries and sustain vodka addictions—Russia prefers to act alone.
As Vania Solntsev makes his way to Frunze St., named in honor of the Russian Civil War hero, dressed in a new red coat, there is the sense that he’ll lead the next revolution. This time, though, Russia’s future belongs not to the proletariat, but to a proud, young generation, whose hopes can be summed up by the well-know Soviet children’s son: “Let there always be sunshine; Let there always be the sky; Let there always be mommy; Let there always be me.”
The Italian has won substantial international acclaim. Screened in cities across Europe and North America, it has won, among many other awards, the Grand Prix of the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk at the Berlin Film Festival; Best Feature Film in Zelba, Germany; Grand Prix at the Baltic Debut Film Festival; Best Film and Best Young Actor at the Iranian International Festival of Films for Children; and the Grand Prix at Cinekid 2005 in Amsterdam.
Director Andrew Kravchuk was born in Leningrad in 1962. In 1984 he graduated from Leningrad State University with a degree in mathematics and mechanics. In 1996 he graduated from the St. Petersburg Institute of Cinema and Television, where he studied feature and documentary filmmaking. Shortly thereafter he began his career as a documentary filmmaker and a director of television series, collaborating regularly with screenwriter and director Iuri Feting. The Italian is his feature-film directorial debut.
1992 Indonesia, My Love