What's truly surprising about The Italian, a Russian film that won two minor Best Feature awards at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival and received favorable stateside reviews after its North American debut at Telluride last month, is its tremendous warmth. Set in a rundown orphanage, the movie features none of the horrors -- neglect, abuse, hunger -- that western audiences associate with that world. Instead, though undeniably poor, the orphanage is a strangely comforting place. Run by a good-hearted man (Yuri Itskov) who struggles daily to balance his desperate need for money with his obvious affection for and desire to protect his charges, the place is home to a wide array of children, all of whom have well-established friendships and a tremendous ease in their environment.
The director notwithstanding, the real rulers of the orphanage are found in a group of old kids: Tough boys and girls who go outside the gates daily to make money, both legally and otherwise. Though we sometimes see younger children punched and intimidated by these older boys, it's very clear that nothing is done arbitrarily, or out of cruelty. Instead, the boys are enforcing a code of conduct that demands honesty and the sharing of assets, all for the good of the group -- it seems that, at least among the young, socialism is alive and well in Russia.