The Italian Review
Life doesn’t get much worse for a young child than being orphaned or abandoned by one’s parents, though the prospects are possibly considerably bleaker for those consigned to living in an orphanage in a cold, bleak, remote part of Russia. There are however some who are fortunate enough to be adopted by loving, caring parents, but fewer still are those who are lucky enough not only to be selected for adoption, but to be given over to parents in a much more exotic and, let’s face it, warmer place like Italy.
Such is the exceptional case of Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), but while you would expect him to be ecstatic at leaving the orphanage and going abroad to a life of greater privilege and opportunity, the young boy who is the envy of every other child in the institution is less than happy. It’s not that he is concerned about the teasing he receives from the others who henceforth refer to him as “The Italian”, or the stories they tell him about the Mafia and people taking kids from homes to sell as spare body parts. What worries Vanya is that his real mother might one day turn up and never be able to find him.
The chances, he is assured, are one in a million, and even if it were to happen, there is no guarantee that the mother who lost or abandoned him would be as loving as the Italian parents who so desperately want to adopt him. But Vanya has seen it happen and been touched by the tragedy that befell the mother of Mukhin, who turned up at the orphanage only to find that her son had been given away to new parents. To the complete incomprehension of the other children, it’s a risk that Vanya isn’t prepared to take.
It’s this very real human dilemma that makes Andrei Kravchuk’s feature an exceptional film, showing that you can make a realistic film in a children’s orphanage without being either unnecessarily grim or getting all cute and sentimental. In the unlikely figure of a 6 year-old underprivileged child the director manages to find unexpected values of real love, honesty and integrity, applying them optimistically by extension to the kind of spirit that is necessary to endure the challenges faced by the individual in modern-day post-Communist Russia. Threatened by the orphanage staff, who do quite well out of the arrangements for the adoption of the children, bullied and beaten by the older, less fortunate children, Vanya never capitulates to the expectations of others, but remains faithful to an almost impossible ideal. But Vanya’s quest is not just an idealistic or romantic notion either, the young boy doing everything within his limited means to get the necessary information and track down his absent mother.
The quiet determination with which Vanya goes about this task is admirable and inspirational, as it the manner in which the director depicts it on the screen, avoiding all the trappings that normally come with films about kids in orphanages, the film even using non-professionals, all from an Leningrad orphanage, for all the children’s roles bar Vanya. The tone strived for is assisted by a superb musical score by Aleksandr Knaifel (Time To Leave) of attenuated strings and deeply reverberating notes picked out on the piano, finding an emotional language and tone not unlike that achieved by Sokurov in Father and Son, but one that seems appropriate to the emotional tone of Vanya in the orphanage and the search for a Russian mother/Mother Russia who seems to have abandoned her children.
The Italian is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is Region 2 encoded.
Sadly, the video aspect is rather lacking on this Soda release, the transfer presented without anamorphic enhancement, although it is at the correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Additionally, the transfer would appear to have been derived from an NTSC source and converted to PAL. The image is consequently rather soft, the colours a little bit dull and flat in tone. Undoubtedly this is partly intentional through the film’s muted colour scheme, but even the colourful parts of the film lack natural tones, reds in particular appearing a little over-saturated. The transfer is also a little bit smeary in places and shows cross colouration artefacts. The print itself is clean with no marks or damage and NTSC-PAL conversion doesn’t cause too much trouble with ghosting and motion blurring, but that’s the best that can be said about the transfer. The image is basic and just about adequate, but nothing more than that.
The audio track is also not of the highest quality. Presented only in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, the stereo separation is good and even some surround effects are successfully achieved, but the overall tone is rather dull and lacking in dynamic. The mixing isn’t particularly good, the balance between the music score and the dialogue not always sufficiently separated, suggesting that a full surround mix would be more appropriate here. The Russian dialogue nevertheless is reasonably clear and audible, and there are no problems with noise or distortion.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and, surprisingly considering the other aspects of the transfer, they are optional. They haven’t been completely proof read however, although the minor problems only seem to apply to one small section early in the film. Elsewhere the translation appears to be fine.
The only extra feature on the disc is a non-anamorphic Theatrical Trailer (1:35), which sells the film very well.
Andrei Kravchuk’s debut feature is most impressive, The Italian striking a perfect balance between commercial and artistic considerations. In its story of an orphan’s search for his mother, the director finds a subject of universal interest that can’t fail to move anyone who is sentimentally inclined, yet he never feels the need to exploit those emotions, telling the story in a realistic manner while at the same time showing it in the wider context of the conditions people living in modern Russia. The DVD transfer here isn’t up to the usual high standards you can expect from Soda Pictures, but although basic, the non-anamorphic NTSC to PAL transfer is at least adequate and without major problems.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:19:35