30 August, 2007


The second-best film I have ever seen is a recent Russian film, The Italian. The best film I have ever seen is an early 90s Italian film called Il Ladro di Bambini, or The Child Thief. (The title was, however, mysteriously translated into English as Stolen Children. I will spare you the obligatory rant on the American obsession with mistranslation, since I have given it before.)

Both films portray orphans who aspire to a normal family life. Both films rely on beautiful stories, and feature impressive performances from all the actors, especially the children. Both films portray the State as interested only in an appearance of right conduct, regardless of the children's actual welfare. Rules are used to destroy the soul, rather than to nurture it.

However, the films take different approaches. The State's goal in the Italian film is to take two children from their home, where their mother has been employing the older sister as a means of income, and settle them in an orphanage. Trouble is, once the orphanages learn of the older sister's background, they want nothing to do with the pair. An Italian policeman has to escort the children from one orphanage to another, bringing about a trip across southern Italy. Not only does the film reveal southern Italy's beautiful scenery, but it also reveals some their beautiful people. I refer to their souls. (Southern Italians are invariably depicted in film as shiftless, lazy, or criminal. Think of The Godfather. Sometimes, they are depicted as all three.)

As for the ending, you'll have to watch the film for yourself. Good luck finding it, but since it has finally been released on DVD in Italy, it should come to the States before long.

The State's goal in the Russian film, by contrast, is to settle a child who has lived in the orphanage all his life with a family, and hopefully make some money in the process. It is an Italian couple that wants to adopt the protagonist of the film, so after they meet and everyone seems to like each other, the other children start calling him Итальянец, or "the Italian".

Everything seems great. Unfortunately, the plans are disrupted by a woman who arrives at the orphanage one day. We meet her indirectly, when the children overhear the director of the orphanage yelling at her and ordering her to leave the orphanage. She departs in tears.

The children learn that she is the mother of a boy who had been adopted by a different foreign couple a few months earlier. In an encounter with "the Italian" at the bus stop, she explains that she had recently realized that she had no one in the world except her boy, so she had traveled to the orphanage with the intention of taking her son back. "The Italian" answers her questions about the boy, reassuring her that the couple was very kind, and her son is almost certainly not slaving away in a foreign sweatshop.*

The news at the orphanage the next day is that the mother is dead. It isn't clear to the children whether she threw herself in front of a train, or simply drank too much and lost her balance on the platform, and they debate it hotly. For "the Italian", it sounds an alarm. What if his mother remembers him after he has left Russia and comes looking for him?

He decides to find her. For this, he needs to learn where she lives, which means he needs information that only the director of the orphanage knows. The director of the orphanage is in no mood to help him. First, he points out, it would ruin the chances of the other children; who would come to the orphanage in the future if there was no assurance that the child you saw and agreed to adopt would not change his mind? Second, he does not point out, he takes a cut of the fees that the couples pay to an immensely unscrupulous agent, which he uses to support his alcoholism. ("He stayed drunk for an entire week after the last adoption," one orphan remarks.)

He's not actually a bad man, but incredibly corrupted by his alcoholism. To him we owe one of my favorite lines in the film,

&emdash;Do you know the name Gagarin?


&emdash;Ah, of course. Why would you?
The point is that in today's Russia, people do not value the genuinely great accomplishments Russians have achieved throughout history. A sense of living in a failed state pervades the film; the director of another orphanage remarks that The country's going to hell.

In any case, "the Italian" can't count on the director's support. The other children refuse to help him as well. Some of the older ones know how to read—another example of the film's understated commentary is that "the Italian" is old enough to read, and cannot—but they refuse to help him because, like the director in his better moments, they worry that the other children will lose their chance at adoption. The leader of the children, an adolescent boy, explains to "the Italian" that his mother beat him and abused him verbally. So if "the Italian" does find his mother, he will not find the pleasant, happy home life that he has fantasized. He will have to return to the orphanage, and will never again have a chance at adoption.

So who will help him? I won't answer that; rent the film. I doubt you'll regret it.

A few more remarks. In the absence of a sober director, the film depicts the children organizing their mini-society, with its own hierarchy. Everyone needs to contribute to everyone else's well-being, so the leaders (the adolescent boys) take the younger children to find honest work, such as a gas station to wash windows. One of the adolescent girls is employed in less-than-honest work, and while she doesn't seem to mind, we learn that she doesn't appreciate how the leaders treat her.

The other adolescent girl acts as a mother to the smaller children, tending to their needs, sending them to bed, and reading to them at night. One of the older boys derides her as a "Mother Teresa". She retains a hint of sadness about her throughout the film. This raised questions in my mind that were never answered.

The film ends sweetly. Whether it's because he finds his mother and his dreams of a happy family are realized, or because he learns to accept reality and finds that the Italians are the best parents he could hope to have, I won't say. You'll have to rent it yourself. It's worth the effort.

I will say that I thought the happy ending cheapened the film a little, which is why it can only be the second best film I've seen, and Il Ladro di Bambini, with its heartbreaking finish, remains the best.

*Russians hear many stories about foreign adoptions being an avenue for criminal enterprises. Italians, for example, have in fact been adopting many Eastern European children; an Italian pen pal of mine has a brother who adopted two Polish girls. Italy recently found itself in a diplomatic spat with Belorussia over an orphan who wasn't adopted, but had visited Italy with a group. The host family discovered that she had been abused. They refused to return the girl, and asked to adopt her... anyway that's another story.

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