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The Italian puts a boy up for sale

Don't be fooled by the title: The Italian isn't an Italian film. It's a Russian film, and it shows us a side of contemporary Russia that doesn't make it into the travel brochures.

Somewhere out in the provinces, where snow accumulates like garbage, an orphanage is picking up where Charles Dickens left off. The children, who were either abandoned or lost by their parents, are basically treated like chattel by the staff. They're ignored most of the time, but when prospective new parents arrive, their wallets stuffed with Euros, select specimens are taken to the barn and given a good scrubbing.

That's what happens to Vanya (Kolya Spiridinov), the Oliver Twist in our little tale of woe. As cute as a puppy at the pound, Vanya attracts the attention of an Italian couple who will be back in two months to pick him up, after the paperwork's all done. In other words, he's won the lottery, but it appears he may not stick around to claim his winnings.

That's because he's determined to find his mother. Directed by Andrei Kravchuk from a script by Andrei Romanov, The Italian was reportedly inspired by the real-life case of an orphan who busted out of his orphanage to find the parent who'd put him there in the first place. And the movie picks up on a social issue that continues to embarrass a country forever teetering on the brink of collapse ?? i.e., Russian children being sold to the highest bidders. But Kravchuk and Romanov aren't just out to right a wrong or air Russia's dirty laundry. They seem to see the orphanage as a metaphor for Mother Russia herself.

Led by a gruff teenage boy (Denis Moiseenko) who's going to make a fortune in the black market someday, the kids have organized themselves into something of an old-style Communist collective, drawing revenue from such sources as theft and prostitution and allocating resources from a central bank. It isn't exactly "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," but Fagin himself would be impressed with how smoothly the whole operation runs.

None of this means anything to Vanya, however. He just wants his mommy. And we hit the road with him in search of her, a journey that has a storybook quality about it -- The Adventures of Pinocchio, perhaps. The help he receives along the way suggests that, however bad things have gotten over there, the place still has a heart.

At once drab and cheery, The Italian looks a lot worse than it feels. The walls of the orphanage are so filthy they may never come clean. And the woman who runs the place (Maria Kuznetsova) all but has dollar signs for eyes. But as in a Dickens novel, the grime gives way to the sublime. The movie's ending might even be a little too sickly sweet if it weren't for Spiridinov's no-time-for-tears performance.

It's hard to believe Vanya's only six years old. Perhaps someday he'll be allowed to act his age.

The Italian is closing Thursday at Sundance 608.

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