Writer-director Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief opens with a young woman, Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova), giving birth on a muddy, country roadside in Russia in 1946. Her husband was killed in the war and now, with her newborn son Sanya (Misha Philipchuk), she must fend for herself in a country which has been devastated both by the recent conflict and the draconian rule of comrade Stalin.
For six years Katya and Sanya wander like lost lambs in this land where brutish cynicism is the best survival tactic, until one day she meets a handsome man in uniform on a train. A burly charmer named Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) who carries a seductively self-sufficient aura, he literally sweeps her off her feet — soon after meeting, they have a furtive and frenzied coupling in a secluded corner of the train.
The three become a makeshift family, moving from one communal dwelling to another as Tolyan plies his trade, which consists of ingratiating himself into each new household and then, when the time is right, vandalizing everybody’s apartment before disappearing into the night, Katya and Sanya in tow. Katya, naively sweet by nature, disapproves but finds it hard to leave this man she genuinely loves. And Sanya, a fragile child who first views his new "father" with suspicion, gradually becomes more and more attracted to this commanding and dangerous presence.
The story is narrated by Sanya from some unspecified point in the future — presumably the present — and, as it unfolds, the emphasis shifts to his relationship to Tolyan, to his slow acceptance of him as a father figure, the shattering disillusionment that follows and the final tragic confrontation between the two — an ending which lays to rest any lingering fear that this is going to turn out to be yet another sentimental and comforting fiction about the triumph of the human spirit amid an impoverished life.
Chukhrai has filled his story with ordinary folk who are interesting without being condescendingly colorful, has kept his symbolism — the analogies between the title character and Stalin — admirably low-keyed, and has taken his story to its logical conclusion without flinching. The result is a tough little movie which is sure to grow in stature over time.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.