The short list for Oscar nominations for best foreign film came out Wednesday, and the Russian submission to the category, Andrei Kravchuk's The Italian, wasn't on it. That's a shame, not necessarily because The Italian should win the prize—of the semifinalists I've seen so far, I'm rooting for Pan's Labyrinth— but because its mere presence on the list might have convinced more audiences to see this small, affecting curiosity. The Italian is an aesthetic gem, but a moral muddle. It marshals considerable filmmaking and acting prowess in service of a message that—if I understood it correctly—practitioners of international adoption may find bluntly offensive.
Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spirodonov), the "Italian" of the film's title, isn't Italian at all. A 6-year-old blond boy in a provincial orphanage near Leningrad, he's given that name by his fellow inmates—there's nothing else to call the residents of this squalid institution—when a wealthy Italian couple offers to adopt him and take him to their country. During the two months it takes to process the papers that will send Vanya to his new life, the boy witnesses a tragic scene: The biological mother of a child who's been adopted arrives at the orphanage, drunk and miserable, searching for her son. When she's taunted by the headmaster and sent away in the snow, Vanya resolves to run away and find his own mother.
The second act of the film, in which Vanya teaches himself to read for the sole purpose of raiding the files for his mother's address, explores the underworld of the orphanage: an alternate economy fueled by theft, prostitution, and protection money that's run by a teenage boss named Kolyan (Denis Moiseenko). The rest of the children (played by the real-life residents of an institution called the Lesogorsky children's home) struggle to find their place in the hierarchy—like gangsters in training. The kid-run mafia is a seedy universe that explicitly parallels the adoption racket going on upstairs, where children are showcased and sold to the highest bidder by Madam (Mariya Kuznetsova), a stout Cruella de Ville in cheap leopard-print rayon.
But it's here that the movie's moral intent gets muddled. Even if we grant that Madam and her fellow adoption brokers are driven entirely by greed, with no regard for the children they help to place, are we to include Vanya's prospective parents in the same category of villainy? The Italian couple, whom we meet only briefly as the film opens, seem nice enough, but there's something vaguely sinister in the way they're filmed as they repeatedly hug this boy they've just met and confer with the broker in murmured tones. Later, when the sad-faced headmaster (played wonderfully by veteran actor Yuri Itskov) tells Vanya that the boy will someday thank him for forcing him to go to Italy, the viewer (at least this one) wants to say, hell yeah. Viva l'Italia! But by this movie's own logic, we can believe in the absolute purity of Vanya's quest only by believing in the absolute malice of his pursuers.
A heartbreaking piece about Ukrainian adoptions in last week's New YorkTimes confirms that The Italian is at least partly accurate in its portrait of the international adoption market. An awkward "auditioning" process dangles potential adoptees before parents only to snatch them away, while the bureaucratic wheels are greased by a system of gifts and bribes. But as compromised as the adoption process may be, orphaned children and child-seeking couples, not to mention at least some of their professional go-betweens, share the same goal: to establish a new family. Vanya's near-delusional journey to locate his birth mother is certainly moving (all the more so when you learn it's based in part on a true story). But shouldn't we be allowed to appreciate the complex motives of those who, however venal, are trying to place him with a loving family? There's a fairy-tale force in the pure badness of this film's baddies, but (unlike, say, Pan's Labyrinth) The Italian isn't a fairy tale: It's a stark post-Communist fable with a clear debt to Italian neorealism. By turning Vanya's story into a black-and-white allegory of innocence pursued by evil, the film doesn't do real-life Vanyas any favors.