Monday, 20 April 2009

Pavel Chukhrai: The Thief - Bop (1997)

Director: Pavel Chukhrai
Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Yekaterina Rednikova, Misha Philipchuk

Film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Nika Award for Best Picture and Best Directing. Also winner of the International Youth Jury's prize, the President of the Italian Senate's Gold Medal, and the UNICEF Award at the 1997 Venice Film Festival.

The Thief is a story of hero worship that recounts what happens when a young boy chooses the wrong role model. It's also an examination of the way a person's impressions of the world change from childhood to adulthood, and how the simple innocence of a 6 year-old's outlook is doomed to mutate in the face of life's harsh realities. The Thief relates the memories of Sanya, a forty-something Russian who looks back on his early years with an unbiased eye. His voiceover narration is sparse, giving us the bare details of time, place, and background, and reminding us of how uncertain our childhood recollections are. Director Pavel Chukhrai uses this perspective to present a child's point-of-view filtered through the vision of an adult. It's 1946 Russia, and the war is over. A young woman, Katya (Yekaterina Rednikova), collapses in the roadside mud and gives birth to a baby boy. Her husband, injured in combat, has been dead for six months. The child, whom she names Sanya, will never know his real father (although he has mystical visions of a ghost-like apparition), and his life is destined to be one of poverty, disappointment, and despair. Six years later, when Sanya (Misha Philipchuk) and his mother are traveling across Russia by train, they encounter Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), a dashing soldier who sweeps Katya off her feet and charms young Sanya. By the time the train ride is over, the three have become a makeshift family, with Katya posing as Tolyan's wife and Sanya as his son. Tolyan is a little too rough to be the ideal father figure, but he forms a bond with the boy and teaches him some difficult lessons, emphasizing his belief that winning is everything and that respect is earned only through fear. Katya's idyllic "marriage" doesn't last long, however. Shortly after she, Tolyan, and Sanya move into a communal apartment, she discovers his source of income – he's a thief. And, while Tolyan thinks of his occupation as nothing more than a means to provide for himself, Katya sees the misery those thefts bring to his victims. As the trio flees from town to town to avoid the authorities, Tolyan's lifestyle begins to exact an emotional price from Katya. For her sake and her son's, she wants to leave Tolyan, but she can't find the courage to do so because she has nowhere else to go. The conclusion of The Thief delivers a blunt and telling blow that offers one plausible explanation for why children act violently. What's most important about this key scene is the matter-of-fact manner in which it is presented. Chukhrai gives it no greater significance than any other moment in Sanya's remembrances. This approach highlights the tragedy of lost innocence. The Thief is characterized by three strong performances. Vladimir Mashkov fashions Tolyan into a character who is frightening, charming, and likable at the same time. Yekaterina Rednikova gives a poignant portrayal as the luckless Katya. The real discovery, however, is young Misha Philipchuk, one of those rare child actors who is capable of giving a completely natural performance. Philipchuk displays Sanya's joy, anger, frustration, and pain as if they were happening to him. One wonders how Chukhrai was able to coax such a believable portrayal from the least-experienced member of his cast. ...

"The Thief" is one of those metaphor-driven movies, promising an inevitable epiphany in which its veiled meaning suddenly hits you like a proverbial ton of bricks. Not that it's heavy-handed, but it's not exactly subtle either. A 1997 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, "The Thief" is on the one hand a carefully observed, beautifully acted and moving evocation of life for a World War II Russian war-widow and her young son, and their encounter with a charismatic petty thief. But it is also a blunt and powerful allegory of the motherland herself and the conflicted emotional state of a nation under a harshly paternalistic Joseph Stalin. Told from the point of view of a 6-year-old boy (the adorable Misha Philipchuk), the literal story revolves around Sanya and his mother Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) and the handsome stranger they meet on a train in 1952. Dressed in the dashing uniform of a soldier, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) immediately catches Katya's eye and-after a feverish coupling on the platform between jostling train cars-the two decide to cast their lot with each other. Masquerading as husband and wife in order to get a better shot at a communal apartment, Katya and Tolyan soon settle in to what looks like the beginning of financial prosperity, with their apparently cozy domesticity shattered by increasingly frequent bouts of spousal abuse and frighteningly stern child-rearing. Furthermore, it rapidly becomes apparent that Tolyan's cash flow comes not from any military paycheck but from the five-finger discount he gives himself at the market and in his neighbors' apartments. Around this time is when the self-proclaimed "Daddy" removes his shirt to reveal the tattoo of Stalin on his chest to little Sanya (just in case there were any lingering doubts as to whom the criminal represents in this morality play). Although he badgers the boy cruelly and enlists his aid in the commission of dangerous robberies, Tolyan does demonstrate a genuine concern for his foster son's well-being. The two begin to develop a familial relationship of sorts, with a bond forged not only out of respect, but fear. What happens next is history, both literally and figuratively. ...

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