"The Italian" may be a more loaded title than the makers of this small Russian film intended. It's the nickname given to Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), an orphan at a shady Russian orphanage, after he's selected for adoption by a visiting Italian couple. The movie, with a starkly squalid setting and an unphotogenic cast, bears a small resemblance to Italian neorealism. This jars with the script, however, which plays out like modern-day Dickens.
Cute, quiet Vanya likewise is torn. The place where he lives is also a roost for a flock of young thieves, pimps and prostitutes. No one would want to live there given the choice, and at first Vanya is pleased with his pending adoption. But a chance encounter with a forlorn mother shakes his confidence. Vanya, slowly realizing what he's giving up by moving to another country, wants to learn where his mother is, but his precocious questioning is rebuked by everyone. Vanya convinces a young prostitute who lives at the orphanage to teach him to read so he can understand his file, but it's a disastrous contrivance or an unintended joke on Vanya, because we soon learn that all he needed was a name and address.
The problem with child protagonists is that they rarely act like children. Children make believable victims, but are not so convincing as heroes. Vanya has the fixed, steady personality associated more with an adult than a 6-year-old while he connives to find his mother. Soon he is off with information in hand to find her, chased, of course, by his evil guardians. You can guess how it goes, and it's here when you really start to wonder if this is going to amount to more than a heart-tugger. If heart-tuggers are your thing, you may find "The Italian" appealing. But you may just as likely yearn to escape yourself. (PG-13) S