If you thought a patch of earth couldn't get bleaker than metro Detroit awaiting spring, guess again. The gray skies, street sludge and dazed look on faces are all the drearier in the Russian landscape, as photographed by cinematographer Alexander Burov in The Italian.
But all is not entirely woebegone in this orphan's tale; for a story steeped in so much sadness, tragedy, loss and devastation, director Andrei Kravchuk and writer Andrei Romanov present a tale reminding us that hope springs eternal, that even when pessimism prevails, there's room for good. And they do so without artificial sweetness and sentimental hogwash, and without sidestepping anything harsh or hard to watch.
The story starts with an Italian couple scoping out a prospective adoptee in a ramshackle orphanage in Russia a place that makes anything Dickens dreamed up look like the Ritz. At first, the adoption seems like it'd be a salvation for 6-year-old Vanya (the sweet-faced Kolya Spiridonov). Vanya's fate is laid out: If he stays, he'll become like the older orphans, undereducated pimping, prostituting and stealing to survive. If he goes with the adoptive parents, who immediately take to him, he'll be cared for and loved.
The scenario seems so magical, but there's a twist: Vanya realizes that moving to Italy means giving up bigger hopes that many of these kids cling to that one day their moms or dads will find them and want them back. Vanya has no clues to his parentage, but a reunion with Mom is too great a myth to let go, at least not without a fight.
As Vanya begins a quest to find his parents, Kravchuk and Romanov weave in more complexities.
Vanya hears how lucky he is to go to Italy, but Kravchuk and Romanov put a critical lens on the rash of adoptions by foreigners. Is the child gaining Italy, or is he losing Russia? Is Italy really the best thing for him, and if he goes, what does it mean for Russia losing Vanya? What's more, when greedy adoption agents who stand to make a tidy sum on the deal zealously try to put a stop to his quest, the question becomes whether Vanya is up for adoption or for sale.
Back to those stark Russian landscapes. At the film's beginning, when Vanya's Italian would-be dad surveys a snow-covered, fallow field, he declares it to be the real Russia. Kravchuk's honest storytelling and Burov's bleak imagery show they would agree, but they also show another picture of the real Russia. Amid the snow and rain, the grime and desolation of his environment, Vanya manages to find enough warmth, comfort and solace in people, often unexpected people, to keep going.
It's clear that this Russia is a place Kravchuk holds dear, a place he hasn't given up on. And so the movie raises another, even more perplexing line of questions: How do you love someone or someplace so broken? How do you love the mother who abandoned you, or a country that struggles? How do you aim for an ideal, even when the prospects are bleak?
In the case of Vanya, the answer is to be cunning, to fight with courage and, above all, to not give up or lose sight of the ultimate goal. Those seem to be Kravchuk and Romanov's answer for Russia too.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, March 9-10, and on Sunday, March 11, at 4 and 7 p.m. Russian and Italian with English subtitles.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.