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The Italian

The Russian-language entry in the 2006 Academy Awards tells a somber tale of a little boy on a search for his birthmother.

Given the choice, would an orphanage child jet off with kindly parents to start life in a different country? Or would he stay put, in the hope that he’ll be reunited with his birthmother? As The Italian opens, six-year-old Vanya, brought to an orphanage as an infant, is about to meet an Italian couple who have flown to the snowy reaches of northern Russia on the first of two trips they’ll take to adopt him. Their gentle, optimistic demeanor contrasts sharply with that of the heartless adoption liaison and orphanage director.

This is a somber, cinematically grim film from start to finish. Director Andrei Kravchuk reinforces the bleak outlook for the children at the orphanage with backdrops of gray buildings, gray rooms, and gray weather. The teens we meet who have aged out of the system have become thieves or prostitutes, operating out of a nearby abandoned building. But Vanya is offered a way out.

Given his prospect of leaving Russia, Vanya’s orphanage comrades nickname him “The Italian,” a teasing show of their support. But when the birthmother of another little boy who was adopted by foreigners returns to the orphanage, distraught, Vanya wonders whether his own birthmother wants him back. With the help of a wayward teen, Vanya snatches his file and runs away to find the truth. The rest of the film is a good-versus-evil chase, as Vanya tries to find his birthmother before the villainous orphanage officials catch him.

Admittedly, as an adoptive parent, I found myself very much caught up in this gripping tale, unsure about who I wanted to “win” in the end. I desperately wanted Kravchuk to tip the balance and add an artful twist to the predictable birthparents-adoptive parents tug-of-war. Sadly, he doesn’t.

Appropriately rated PG-13, The Italian isn’t a film adopted children should see on their own. And be warned—if viewed together as a family, it’s bound to raise questions and prompt thoughtful, what-if discussions. 

In Russian, with subtitles. // Opens January 19 in the U.S., limited release.

Susan Avery is the Kids Editor at New York magazine and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. She adopted her daughter from Russia in 1997.

PHOTO: Tatiana Kanayeva. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. © 2006 CTB Film Company

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