Dances with waifs: 'The Italian' 

With its harsh orphanage setting and a social backdrop that rivals the surrounding weather conditions for black-cloudiness, "The Italian" would have fared stronger had it remained a realistic drama instead of the fairy tale it becomes as its pint-size hero escapes his oppressive confines and searches pluckily for his absent mother. But thanks to some early grittiness, a resonant subject and a winning tyke, this Russian drama is, overall, satisfying — a dramatically involving view of a child’s survival workings.

The protagonist is 6-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), a waif living at a bleak house in frozen-over Russia, where foreigners adopt kids who’ve been abandoned by parents too drunk or destitute to raise them. Meanwhile, an inebriated headmaster (Yuri Itskov) and a greedy adoption broker known as Madam (Maria Muznetsova) embrace the illegal profits.

Although an Italian couple want to adopt him — an opportunity other children covet — Vanya determines to stay in Russia and find his birth mother.

Director Andrei Kravchuk, who’s previously made documentaries, works well in realist mode. As a picture of orphanage life and of how the child psyche warps but remains vital when trapped in cruel circumstances, his film is moving.

Some of the best scenes involve the crime collective the orphans have formed in the boiler room. Displaying a mix of tyranny and egalitarianism that suggests Soviet-era Russia, the junior thugs brutalize and support their own.

But while this material is plentiful enough to keep things engrossing, Kravchuk and screenwriter Andrei Romanov, whose script is fact-based, increasingly deliver "A.I." over "Oliver Twist." As for the central performance, Spiridonov, an experienced child actor, has a naturalness that helps you stick with Vanya. The success of stories like these hinges on the ability of the ragamuffin to seem deserving and real, and, in both arenas, this kid delivers.

The Italian ***

Starring Kolya Spiridonov, Maria Muznetsova, Olga Shuvalova, Nikolai Reutov

Written by Andrei Romanov

Directed by Andrei Kravchuk

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour, 39 minutes

Subtitled; at the Lumiere

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Staff Report

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