22 May 2009 - 11:37 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Andrei Kravchuk – The Italian

Director ANDREI KRAVCHUK takes a different approach to Russian cinema with the gritty but intensely moving THE ITALIAN. BY FILMINK'S BRIAN DUFF

One does not immediately associate Russian filmmaking with child-central fare. From Sergei Eisenstein to Andrei Tarkovsky, and from the Empire to the Union to the Federation, realism, politics, religion and other serious subjects have received the grownup treatment. However, with director Andrei Kravchuk's masterful work The Italian, a little ground has been reclaimed in that area. With untested youngster Kolva Spiridonov onscreen for nearly the film's entire duration, Kravchuk places his story squarely in the young actor's tiny hands – and simultaneously brings Russia's urban orphan debate to the forefront of public consciousness.

Spiridonov plays Vanya, a towheaded blonde of incomparable resilience who rejects the promise of a new life in Italy in order to pursue a relationship with his birth mother. Despite the difficulties inherent with working with children, director Kravchuk had no qualms about giving Spiridonov that responsibility. “It was difficult, of course,” he says down a crackling phone line that sounds even further than two continents away. “But I decided that it was important. It was important that the movie be shot like a documentary, and for it to be a real story to the people who watch it.”

His investment paid off, and The Italian swept through the European festival circuit, taking two top prizes at Berlin, and also winning at children's movie festivals from around the world. For his part, the director has enjoyed travelling with the film – something that he never really expected to do. “The experience was very exciting,” he says, sounding decidedly dour. “It was a great opportunity to talk about Russia and our problems.”

Still, it is not all studious reflection and social realism that's at play here. This is, after all, something of a children's film – albeit a difficult one – and Kravchuk audibly lights up when talk turns to the production itself, and the style of the finished product. “Like I said,” he says. “I wanted to shoot it like a documentary, but I had a chance to make it more of a melodrama, and I wanted to take that chance. It was a great idea for a movie, and a great story [by veteran screenwriter Andrei Romanov] and, with our Vanya, we could do it.”

It is a different way of approaching children's films – wholly separate from the Dickens and Disney camps – but one that looks to have been embraced everywhere. Vanya and the other orphans in the film surely suffer, but their spirit shines, and this film has brought prestige to an industry currently dominated by Hollywood – and faux-Hollywood – actioners, as well as cinematic experiments from the likes of Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark). The Russian filmic identity is now being forged anew, and Kravchuk is doing his part to construct one of its foundation components.