It's something of a shame that the two most striking bits in Andrei Kravchuk's "The Italian" come, like bookends, at its beginning and end. The first finds a group of young children emerging like phantoms from the mist hovering over a bleak Russian bog to push an SUV run short of gas to its destination - the crumbling orphanage where much of the film takes place. For a moment "The Italian" seems to be taking cues from countryman Aleksandr Sokurov's hypnotic cinema. The other captures plucky six-year-old orphan Vanya (the remarkable Kolya Spiridinov), near the end of a long journey, carefully smoothing his hair before, hopefully, meeting his mother for the first time; a moment of calm self-possession, that recalls the rich inner lives of folks living out their existences under the watch of the Dardenne brothers ("L'Enfant" most especially, given the subject matter).
On the eve of Vanya's adoption by a kindly Italian couple (the inhabitants of the stalled vehicle from the film's opening, as well as the source for Vanya's titular nickname), life in the orphanage is shaken by the arrival of a clearly hysterical woman looking for the son she'd given up long ago. In a second, the question that underpins any orphan's existence - "Why was I left alone?" - is actually answered with a dash of hope: sometimes it was all just a mistake, and real parents do come back. Even faced with the certainty of a life with the adoring Italians away from the orphanage - a crooked system where the headmaster (Yuri Itskov - half Ms. Hanigan, half Vladimir Putin) is a figure barely tolerated by the morally suspect child broker on the one side and teen thugs grown old in the compound and now using it to run a profitable black market business on the other - Vanya chooses instead to get quick reading lessons, break into the headmaster's files, learn his mother's identity, and hit the road in search of a true filial bond.
We're never told what caused Vanya's mother to give him up, but that's not of issue here - "The Italian," as its combination of Russian setting and, well, Italian title might suggest is a film concerned with journeying. The film's not an indictment of the rampant corruption that surrounds the buying and selling of children (though this is touched on), or in any way a probing of the impulses that lead would-be parents to adopt, and adopted children to adapt. "The Italian"'s clarity of focus is admirable - it's obvious almost immediately that Kravchuk's in a hurry to get his charismatic protagonist on the road.
Perhaps he's in too much of a hurry - from the outset, where the opening credits are stitched jaggedly in between the film's first few shots, there's a clear rhythmic problem that never quite resolves itself. Of the long stretch of film between those two terrific moments cited earlier, only a few shots and sequences are allowed appropriate duration to build suspense. Forgivable, but placing his camera almost always above and looking down on his sturdy, short, protagonist, is somewhat less so; in choosing the high road, the filmmaker's foreclosed the possibility of seeing the world through a truly ground-level perspective. I'm not sure if Kravchak's aspiring for the more mythical, fabulist omniscience of something like Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist" (the lost boys emerging from the mist suggests that possibility), but he's not quite distanced enough to get there either. Despite all this, "The Italian" is a remarkably restrained film about an orphan (a surprise in itself), rendered lovingly and realistically by young Spiridinov, that could please those folks who found something like "Kolya" charming, as well as those who didn't.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed at Magnolia Pictures.]