Andrei Kravchuk: The Italian (Ital'ianets), 2005

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2006

Where Motherland Begins: Andrei Kravchuk’s The Italian

The Italian is a debut feature by Andrei Kravchuk, an experienced documentary and television filmmaker from Petersburg who had previously co-directed a feature film with Iurii Fetig, A Christmas Mystery (Rozhdestvenskaia misteriia, 2000). Kravchuk graduated from the St. Petersburg Institute of Film and Television, where he studied under Semen Aranovich. A veteran documentary filmmaker renowned for his ability to uncover the psychological drama within the document, Aranovich also infused his feature films with authentic detail, skillfully integrating newsreel footage into fictional plots and imbuing them with documentary-like credibility. The Italian may be seen as Kravchuk’s fictional tribute to the teacher he had earlier honored in documentary form—Semen Aranovich: The Last Shot (Semen Aranovich: Poslednii kadr, 2002). The uncompromising realism of this feature film, shot in a state-run provincial orphanage whose residents were chosen for featured roles, recalls Aranovich’s own Summer Trip to the Seaside (Letniaia poezdka k moriu, 1978). In order to render more accurately his characters’ harsh childhood experiences for a film set in 1942, Aranovich had employed children actors from a socially less-privileged background, recruiting them from juvenile correctional and foster-care facilities.

Scriptwriter Andrei Romanov claims that the idea for The Italian came from a newspaper article about an orphan who learned how to read in order to find his biological mother. [1] The film’s fusion of stark realism, the melodramatic child character, and a fictional adventure plot produced a genre combination variously defined in the press as lyrical drama, social drama, social melodrama, and even children’s adventure. The film moved cinema audiences worldwide, receiving the Grand Prix for the best children’s film at the Berlin International Film Festival’s Kinderfilmfest. It garnered a plethora of official and audience awards at home, playing to full houses at a number of national and regional film festivals. The film’s young lead, Kolia Spiridonov, who, unlike the other children actors in the film, does have a mother and a home, collected the Best Actor award at the Blagoveshchensk Film Forum. In an era of special effects and entertainment-oriented action-adventures, this low-budget production about the spiritual quest of a naive character articulates a moral code for Russia’s rampant capitalism that resonates strongly with viewers longing for a society based on a set of universal ethical values.

The title character, the five-year-old Vania Solntsev, shares his “sunny” name with the eponymous child protagonist of Valentin Kataev’s 1944 Socialist Realist novella The Son of the Regiment, a wartime orphan adopted by the army and raised in an elite military school. Born together with the 21st century, the latter-day Vania Solntsev lives in a rundown children’s home, a lingering relic of the Soviet past lost in the vast snow-covered expanses of Russia’s northwest. A nearby highway bustles with commercial trucks from an entirely different, profit-driven era of free market economy and social mobility, and the drivers slow down in these provincial backwaters only to satisfy their carnal appetites. Excluded from the “brave new world” epitomized by the highway, the orphanage’s neglected and poorly educated charges survive by servicing the privileged highway population as prostitutes and car-washers. Ignorant as they are about any viable social structures, the children imitate the hierarchy they observe in the adult world by organizing into a patriarchal “family” in which the leader Kolian resembles both behaviorally and phonically the authoritarian Tolian of Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief (Vor, 1997).

The only frequent visitor from outside the confined space of the orphanage is the capitalist entrepreneur Madame (Maria Kuznetsova), a ruthless woman who makes a comfortable living by selling the orphaned children for adoption abroad. Even though she is exclusively profit-oriented, the orphanage population sees her as the only conduit to a longed-for family. The older kids dub Vania “the Italian” when a childless couple from Italy decides to adopt him and take him to warmer climes. The boy’s last name with its double symbolism of a failed Soviet social experiment and the implied potential of a “sunny” future apparently prefigures the boy’s only prospect at happiness as an escape from the bleak snowy landscapes of his motherland.

The action takes an unexpected turn with the appearance of a repentant mother who searches to reclaim the son she abandoned several years earlier. When she finds out that he was adopted and she has lost him forever, she commits suicide at a nearby train station. This tragic event prompts the compassionate Vania to set off in pursuit of his own “real” mother who may be as desperately in need of him. The remainder of the movie documents the boy’s quest for his origins, and ultimately his and his country’s identity, as he traverses the hostile capitalist terrain and navigates through various generational and social layers of a deeply split society. With many obstacles complicating his journey, including the fuming-mad Madame on his heels, will Vania manage to find his mother and point the way toward restoring cohesion to the fragmented universe around him?

The film scrutinizes and consequently rejects several successive models of social organization as its naive child protagonist intuitively bypasses the mistakes and inadequacies of the past, arriving at his own ideal of human communality. At the beginning of his journey Vania is assisted by Irka, a free-spirited teenager who helps him flee from their authoritarian orphanage family. In addition to teaching him how to read so he can access his personal file, she buys him a train ticket to his mother’s town, taking the money from Kolian’s stash. Vania and Irka’s bonding notwithstanding, the film does not extol “the orphans’ brotherhood.” To the contrary, it draws parallels between Kolian’s economic and physical dominance over the younger children and Madame’s exploitative manipulations. If Kolian uses the other children’s money to purchase himself a motorcycle, an important asset giving him access to the capitalist highway, Madame buys herself a Range Rover with equally misappropriated child-adoption fees to replace her Soviet-made Volga. Madame’s previous ownership of a top-of-the-line Soviet car accessible almost exclusively to the Brezhnev-era political and cultural elites traces her origins back to the communist nomenklatura. So do her methods of achieving her goals: Soviet psychiatric abuses against dissidents lurk behind Madame’s threats to send the noncompliant Vania to a home for mentally retarded children, followed by assignment to a labor camp. This cynical functionary of the corrupt bygone regime continues to exploit her land and people in the new guise of a free-market entrepreneur.

Madame’s chauffer-cum-bodyguard Grigorii completes the movie’s capitalist triad. In the age bracket between his boss and Kolian, Grigorii represents the glasnost-era generation that succumbed to the former Soviet elites’ re-appropriation of power and their immoral practices. An obedient executor of Madame’s orders throughout most of the film, Grigorii is the only adult to have undergone a dramatic conversion by its end, turning from a pitiless bounty hunter to his victim’s compassionate ally. The film seems to imply that his generation’s squandered aspirations for political morality, social justice, and, above all, personal responsibility are ultimately recoverable and may constitute the core of the ideal social arrangement sought by the child protagonist.

Refusing to play into the latter-day nostalgia for Soviet times, Kravchuk and Romanov proceed to examine the ideals of the sacrosanct Thaw and World War II generations. Without angry disparagement from the authors, these systems of belief simply reveal their deficiencies when confronted with the protagonist’s naive faith in people, his capacity for love and forgiveness, and, most importantly, the sense of personal responsibility for his own life. The director of the orphanage, a disillusioned 1960s dreamer, ascribes his failure to become an elite fighter pilot—akin to Iurii Gagarin—to the absence of a benevolent mentor by his side. Resigned to the unsightly reality of the orphanage, he plays the role of the benefactor he believes he never had by facilitating his charges’ adoption into affluent western lands. When not teaching how to build wood-veneer aviation models (the only school subject viewers ever see taught in the orphanage), the director drinks away his adoption bonuses to the lyrics of Soviet-era aviation songs. While uncomfortable with Madame’s cruel persuasion techniques, he delivers a no less abusive diatribe against the dejected young woman who comes to recover her child, inadvertently causing her death.

A similar intolerance of human mistakes, regardless of their cause, permeates the mentality of the ascetic wartime generation. The World War II veteran who works as a night guard at the foster home for newborns where Vania spent his first months seems to be the kind of parent the boy is looking for. He protects the infants’ nightly sleep from Madame’s willful intrusions, rejecting her bribes as a matter of principle; upon checking Vania’s papers he welcomes him as a rightful member of the orphanage family (ty nash), shares his simple rations with him, gives up his bed for him, and promises to adopt the boy if they do not find his mother. His low military rank and modest pension further attest to the moral integrity and personal dignity that prevented him from social climbing and profiteering. But the night guard’s unconditional sacrifice of individual fulfillment in the name of the perceived common good reveals an essentially authoritarian underpinning when he indiscriminately condemns the mothers who chose to abandon their children at birth. In his rigid model of social responsibility and civic duty there is no place for individual aspirations or personal motivations. He admires his senior colleague’s penchant for naming parentless newborns after real or fictional Soviet war heroes, such as the self-sacrificial revolutionary Pavel Korchagin, the legless World War II pilot Aleksei Meresiev, or the patriotic son of the regiment Vania Solntsev. Compelling names like these, the night guard believes, give children a powerful start in life; but he fails to admit the heavily manipulated nature of the original name bearers’ public identities. Imposition of restrictive ideological paradigms upon infants circumscribes these unique personalities at birth. Much to his surprise, the night guard finds out that Solntsev is, in fact, Vania’s real last name, the one he inherited from his own mother and not from an official child hero.

Conceived as a politically and socially naive character, Vania makes no rational sense of his mentors’ ideologies, nor of their historical backgrounds. The name of the street on which his first foster home is located (Frunze, the “father” of the Red Army), the brand of the Soviet-era cigarettes on which the night guard jots down Vania’s home address (Belomorkanal, one of Stalin’s first “reeducation through labor” projects), the director’s aviators’ song, and the brands of Madame’s cars do not fall into a coherent picture of Motherland for him. Nor does his mother’s home address strike him as in any way meaningful: 25 October Street, apartment 3 is merely his final destination point, a place where he can find his roots and his real mother. The boy’s determined and uncompromising quest for that which is real, authentic, and entirely one’s own, even though it may not be perfectly reasoned or fully articulated, leads him through a labyrinth of choices to the future that is uniquely and undeniably his own. From the moment he learns how to read and recovers his personal information from a locked-up file, Vania takes charge of his and his mother’s lives, thereby challenging the commonly held conviction about the ineffectuality of individual action in Russia, eloquently summed up in the phrase “nothing depends on us” (ot nas nichego ne zavisit).

Vania’s courageous example admonishes the film’s predominantly adult audiences to start taking personal responsibility for their own future, which is inseparable from the welfare of Russia’s children. The film locates an ideal community within the nuclear family, representing it as the basic cell and framework for the building of civil society in a truly democratic Russia. A reliable, family-based support network may represent the ideal sought by the protagonist, but the film’s seemingly optimistic resolution is fraught with ambiguity. The critics who believe that the movie’s “false and pathetic” ending “discredits” the serious and urgent problems addressed in the film, [2] ignore the narrative’s change of register in the final scene. When we see the close up of Vania’s smiling face, we hear the previously timid notes of Knaifel’s magic music swell to flood the soundtrack, as the boy’s off-screen voice reads his letter to Italy. The deeply emotional coloring of the sequence, the ethereal music, and the transfixed expression on Vania’s face may indeed suggest the attainment of his cherished ideal. However, the elusory nature of the scene intimates a longing rather than a fulfillment. It references the futility with which many Russian orphans dream of parental love and social support in capitalist Russia. The schematic image of the mother whom we never see in the film builds up to reflect the Russian people’s more general yearning for a nurturing and dependable social system. This ideal social arrangement would involve the faith and warmth radiating from Vera Solntseva’s name, combined with the caring and compassion implicit in her occupation as a nurse. But as the final shot fades out to a blank white screen, viewers remain uncertain about what the future holds for them. Their dreams of a sunny Motherland clash with the reality of the wintry Madame-land they continue to inhabit. .

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell (Bowdoin College)


Notes

1] Oleg Sul'kin “Pust' vsegda budet solntse,” Novoe russkoe slovo (10 February 2005).

2] S. Kudriavtsev “Ital'ianets,” KM.ru (14 September 2005).


The Italian, Russia, 2005
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Screenplay: Andrei Romanov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Burov
Art Direction: Vladimir Svetozarov
Cast: Kolia Spiridonov, Anton Zemlianko, Mariia Kuznetsova, Nilolai Reutov, Iurii Itskov, Polina Vorob'eva, Sergei Popov
Producers: Andrei Zertsalov, Vladimir Khusid, Vladimir Bogoiavlenskii
Production: Lenfilm, with assistance from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Andrei Kravchuk: The Italian (Ital'ianets), 2005

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2006

Updated: 15 Jan 06