When 6-year-old Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spiridonov) escapes from an orphanage to look for his mother, the young woman Irka (Olga Shuvalova), who has promised to help him flee, is delayed at the railroad station by a burly man accusing her of theft. She shouts instructions to Vanya as he boards the train alone. From the windows of the slow-moving train Vanya views the Russian countryside: old wooden fences, rusty signs, dilapidated buildings and bumpy unpaved roads. He sees people bundled in winter clothes, selling pasta and potatoes from metal buckets near the train stations. Vanya is a personable child, but because of his experiences in the orphanage, he does not completely trust adults. For security and to avoid suspicion, he pretends that a passed-out drunk on the train is his father.
Vanya is pursued by the orphanage's unethical headmaster (Yuri Itskov) and money-hungry adoption broker, Madam (Maria Kuznetsova). They chase the train from station to station in a late model SUV--a rare sight among much older vehicles--indicating that running an orphanage in Russia in 2002 might be financially profitable.
The Italian is a Russian movie based on a true story. Illegal adoptions are a serious problem in Russia, and The Italian addresses the issue in an intelligent manner. As expected, life in the orphanage is hard. In addition to the corrupt administration, there's a children's gang operating out of the institution's boiler room and the older children resort to stealing and prostitution to survive.
In the film, an Italian couple arrive at the orphanage in search of a boy to adopt. They choose Vanya, bringing about not only envy from the other orphans but a new nickname from them as well: the Italian. The Italian couple will be returning in a couple months to take Vanya with them to Italy.
Although he can't remember her, Vanya sees his mother in his dreams and wants desperately to find her, whereas many of the boys in the orphanage have given up on their parents and are simply hoping to be adopted. Vanya's desire to find his mother is fueled when the mother of an orphan friend shows up to try to reclaim her son. Unfortunately, her son had recently been adopted, and the mother is rudely kicked out of the orphanage by the headmaster. Making her situation worse, are the rumors circulating that some foreign adoptive parents want children only for the "spare parts" they can provide.
Vanya has many obstacles to overcome before he can find his mother. He wants to know if his mother abandoned him or just "lost" him, but his records are locked up, and the headmaster always carries the key on him. Also, Vanya must first learn to read before he can understand the information on the records.
It's winter and very cold in Russia when Vanya's search begins, but winter turns to spring, snow to rain, and green meadows appear. Vanya, traveling alone, is frequently without shelter. A cold rain continuously falls, and danger lurks around every corner. A small child striking out alone to travel to a distant city searching for his mother is an almost unbearable premise. Viewers of the film want to accompany little Vanya, hold his hand and give him advice, if not actually adopt him themselves.
Spiridonov is an appealing and charming child actor who is somehow both shy and courageous. He exhibits just the right amount of tentative behavior in the presence of adult strangers. It's impossible to tell if the mature sadness and distant look in his eyes is from dealing with his past or from wondering about his future. Both are unknowns for this child: He no longer remembers the orphanage in which he resided and, without a parent, his future is also a frightening mystery.
The Italian is director Andrei Kravchuk's first feature film, and he tells the story with passion and simplicity. The acting is impressive, especially by the children and young people in the film, many who are real orphans, including the inmates of Lesogorsky Children's Home in Leningrad. Also worth noting is the dainty musical score by Alexander Kneiffel, very fitting for a film about children. The Italian has garnered a great deal of recognition, including the Best Feature award at the 2005 Berlin International Children's Film Festival, and is destined to win over all who see it.