The shadow of Stalin

How vulnerable children are! And how wounding life can be.
The Thief, a Russian film set in the post-World War II Stalinist era, was one of five nominees vying for last year's Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film. (It lost to Character.) Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai (Remember Me As I Am), The Thief is a grim, painful movie about love and hate, devotion and betrayal, and the conflicted emotions that bind people to one another. On a more allegorical level, it can be read as a statement on the contentious yet deeply dependent relationship that exists between members of a totalitarian state and the tyrant who rules them.

The winner of five NIKA Awards (the Russian equivalent of the Oscars), The Thief concerns the relationship between 6-year-old Sanya (Misha Philipchuk in his film debut); his mother, Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova); and the army officer who enters their lives. Sanya never knew his father, who died shortly after the war ended, but he has recurring images of him. The boy and his mother travel aimlessly across Russia by train trying to survive, like millions of their countrymen.

A handsome, self-assured young army officer, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), boards the train and is instantly attracted to Katya. She sees him as the answer to her prayers and immediately begins living with him, posing as his wife. The family moves into a communal apartment, already occupied by several other families.

A masculine, forceful personality prone to violence, Tolyan proves a strict disciplinarian. Sanya is both cowed and fascinated by the older man, the first male authority figure in his life. Tolyan's view of life is that "might makes right," and he pushes Sanya to "pummel" his enemies, using any method necessary. Despite his roughness, however, Tolyan seems to genuinely care for Katya and her son.

It isn't long before Katya learns that her lover is not an army officer but a common thief and con artist who moves into communal dwellings then robs his neighbors and runs away. She tries to leave him but is too deeply in love with him; instead, she becomes an unwilling accomplice in his criminal deeds. Eventually, Tolyan is arrested and sent to prison. Sanya lives for the day that the older man will return and claim him. But life rarely offers fairy-tale endings.

On the surface, the title of the film refers to Tolyan's occupation, but it could just as easily be interpreted as the robbing of young Sanya's belief in people and the destruction of his hopes and dreams. Clearly, the love-hate relationship that the boy has with his surrogate father will haunt him for the rest of his life. And it is a grim, tragic picture that emerges.

The Thief is beautifully lit and photographed. Many scenes take place in railway yards, and cinematographer Vladimir Klimov fills them with swirls of steam and fog, which give the images a dream-like beauty.

The acting is top-notch across the board. Mashkov, a popular film and stage star in Russia, proves a charismatic Tolyan--virile and strong but also deeply intimidating. He creates a character who is both good and bad, sincere and shallow, loving and selfish. His performance earned him the NIKA Award for best actor. Rednikova, who brings the requisite femininity, vulnerability, and sorrow to the part of Katya, also walked off with a Russian Oscar. (The picture received top honors for music, directing, and as best film of the year too.)

With his wide-eyed expressiveness, young Philipchuk makes a heart-wrenching Sanya. Sanya narrates the film not as the 6-year-old child he is when the film opens, but looking back from adulthood--one filled with misery and disappointment.

While the story succeeds beautifully on its own terms, it is also possible to see the picture as a metaphor for the relationship between Stalin and the Russian people, who feared and hated his cruelty, yet remained deeply dependent and loyal to him. People referred to Stalin as "Father," and his iron hand and multiple betrayals have affected--some would say doomed--every generation since.

The Thief.
Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai. Starring Vladimir Mashkov, Ekaterina Rednikova, and Misha Philipchuk. Opens Friday.


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