Oliver Twist and Pinocchio, Russian director Andrei Kravchuk's fictional hearttugger exposes a troubling real-life practice in contemporary Russia: the buying and selling of abandoned children to rich foreign couples.
One of the many children who were either orphaned by tragedy or abandoned by circumstance, 6-year-old Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spiridonov) lives in an underfunded children's home run by a drunken headmaster (Yuri Itskov). The children's greatest hope is to be one day adopted by a rich and loving couple who'll take them far from the privations of the rundown institute, but more and more these adoptions are becoming business transactions conducted by Madame (Mariya Kuznetsova), an efficient businesswoman who recognizes the fact that in Russia's struggling market economy everything — and everyone — can be bought and sold. Madame, her henchman Sery (Sasha Sirotkin) and the headmaster have turned the orphanage into a marketplace for wealthy couples who can afford to travel to Russia and buy any child who strikes their fancy for 5,000 Euro. The young ones are usually chosen over adolescents, such as Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko), who have little hope of ever leaving. Kolyan, however, has learned to fend for himself, becoming the institution's very own Bill Sykes, running a gang of teenagers out of the furnace room adjacent to the home's main building. Kolyan demands a cut of what the other kids earn on the sly, and his Nancy is Irka (Olga Shuvalova), the pretty, underage prostitute who protects Vanya when he's caught trying to hide the money he's earned. Vanya is one of the lucky ones — he's been chosen by an Italian couple, hence his new nickname "The Italian" — and as soon as the paperwork is completed in two months or so, Vanya will be moving to Italy. But after the despondent mother of a former ward shows up at the home begging to know the whereabouts of her recently adopted son, Vanya begins to have second thoughts about his future. He wonders whether his mother will one day come looking for him as well, and with the help of Irka, is determined to find her before he's whisked away to Italy forever.
With Madame and Sery hot on their trail, Vanya and Irka head to Zarechensk, his mother's last known whereabouts, and along the way Kravchuk offers us a pretty grim portrait of contemporary Russia. Few details, however, are offered about the circumstances surrounding the so-called abandonment of "unwanted" children given up by mothers who may, in fact, want their children very much but find they can no longer care for them. Kravchuk seems to lay the blame on irresponsible women who just don't know what they want (fathers are somehow never called into account), and at one point the most sympathetic adult character in the film — the only one who's not for sale — simply refers to them as "bitches." It's an unfair depiction that tarnishes an otherwise rich and compassionate film. leave a comment --Ken Fox