Foreign-language films about waifs tend to be sweet, sentimental even -- Kolya and Central Station are prime examples.So the Russian film The Italian is a refreshing surprise, to a point.
Kolya Spiridonov plays a 6-year-old boy at a remote, ramshackle orphanage who is desired for adoption by an Italian family. The other kids, jealous of his opportunity, call him The Italian. Yet he has other ideas. Learning that his birth mother is still alive, he steals his records and runs off in search of her as the orphanage's corrupt headmistress (Maria Kuznetsova), eager to make a sale, pursues him with her thuggish aide.Director Andrei Kravchuk renders orphanage life with gritty realism that also serves as a metaphor for the Soviet Union. The older kids run a criminal operation to provide enough money for food and enforce compliance with threats and violence. One of the girls, too young to be so jaded, spends the days prostituting herself. But once the boy escapes, The Italian becomes a somewhat rote, though undeniably tense, thriller that just isn't as interesting to the viewer as life in the orphanage was. But Spiridonov's terse, serious acting is very good. He's an admirably determined serious actor for his age. And the film does take us behind the scenes into post-Soviet, small-town Russia. (Steven Rosen) Grade: B-