"The Italian" is now playing at the Kendall, and my God is it perfect for the Kendall. It's foreign, it's inspiring, it has an adorably resourceful kid; it depicts grinding misery in a land far from Cambridge, and it holds out the possibility of clambering over all that misery to attain your dream. Like "To Live and Become," "Gloomy Sunday," and "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" before it, "The Italian" will probably play the theater for a year, and more power to it.
It's even a pretty good movie: soft around the edges but with a defiantly indigestible core. Indeed, this is a film to make prospective parents in the United States and Western Europe nervously wonder where their adoptive babies are coming from, and how, and why. Despite the title, we don't get lotharios and Tuscany but a rundown orphanage in Russia, where the drunken director (Yuri Itskov) has a sideline in selling children to wealthy couples from abroad.
The mastermind of the operation is Madam ( Maria Kuznetsova), a businesswoman who understands that sentiment has no place in the New Russia. When "The Italian" opens, a 6-year-old boy named Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) is being chosen for adoption by a lovely pair of Italian yuppies. They hold out a life of comfort, and the other children can't believe Vanya's luck. They call him "the Italian," in honor of where he's heading in two months, once the paperwork clears.
Little Vanya isn't sure he wants to go, though. Instead, he wants to find his mother -- whoever and wherever she is -- and learn whether she abandoned him on purpose or couldn't afford to keep him. The more everyone around him says he's crazy, the more stubbornly he insists. "The Italian" thus becomes a road movie, and then a chase movie, played out against the background of a prostrate society.
It's possible screenwriter Andrei Romanov and director Andrei Kravchuk intend the orphanage as a metaphor for the country as a whole. Or maybe not; it's a godawful place either way. The place is really run by a swaggering teenage thug (Denis Moiseenko), who enforces a Darwinian rule of eat or be eaten. The older girls either give in to him or, like the flame-haired cynic Irka (Olga Shuvalova), turn tricks for passing truck drivers. At least Irka is kind enough to get Vanya started on his journey, where he encounters both cruelty and a slowly widening compassion.
Spiridonov, towheaded and somber, is a natural, and your heart stays with him -- and in your mouth -- as the film turns increasingly programmatic. "The Italian" offers a soul-blasted portrait of modern Russia and then dares to hope; what begins as gritty realism becomes bound by (very effective) movie convention and a final shot that's helpless wishful thinking. As sad as it is to report, the realism feels more honest.