Emblematically Earthy

The Thief
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

Back when Americans were first discovering foreign movies, "earthy" was a big draw. If Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani stomped around barefoot and braless in a peasant dress and flicked at their tousled hair while unshaven guys spat wine at them, that guaranteed solid profits almost by itself. As the years went on, plots got richer and themes got deeper but earthy still held: For several years, on-screen pig-slaughter became more common than hayloft rapes.

All of this is prelude to the fact that the new Russian film The Thief opens with a woman giving birth all alone on a bleak farm road, clutching the wintry mud as she groans. There's even a closeup of that clutch--a handful of mud--and you'd better believe it's going to be "emblematic of the futility of proletarian struggle in Stalinist Russia." Or something like that. Pavel Chukhrai's movie is set in Stalin's time, and its title character has a tattoo of Uncle Joe on his breast, so it's entirely possible to see the movie as one more sorrowful lament for how awful it was for earthy comrades under a coldhearted regime.

Since there have already been plenty of Stalin-era laments, The Thief has a little more going for it--namely some absent-father pathology. The boy who was born in the mud is Sanya (Misha Philipchuk), and once he's 6 years old the story proper begins, as his perpetually single mother Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) meets up with the handsome Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) on the train. Tolyan is so sexy and charismatic that soon he and Katya are enjoying some stand-up sex, and by the next stop the three of them are a kind of family, looking for lodging. They find it in a communal apartment (shared kitchen and bath), at which point this Oscar-nominated movie becomes a chamber drama about desire and deception, advances and retreats.

Tolyan is first seen in a uniform and passes well as a former war hero (recall that nearly a generation of Russian men perished in World War II), but it becomes clear quite soon that he's primarily a thief. In a land where hardly anyone owns anything, he manages to steal a lot of it and sell it to others. Once Katya figures this out, Tolyan doesn't even bother to apologize--he implies that it's part of the package. Meanwhile, he is also starting to watch over little Sanya, blustering his way through some fatherhood/manhood lessons that are sometimes terrifying and sometimes comical.

Since the movie is narrated by the adult Sanya, who in voiceover maintains his curiosity about the real father he never met, scenes between thief and kid eventually take precedence over the earthy/unshaven/sex stuff. This makes The Thief a little more interesting than it might have been. Sanya is an unbelievably cute and vulnerable kid--his face alone could sell a whole product line--and the way he warms up to Tolyan while wondering about him makes for a kind of interior drama. Kids at the new apartments pick on him; he interrupts some coitus to drag Tolyan out to fend for him, not knowing whether Surrogate Dad will beat him or his tormentors. Later, Sanya makes a typical kidlike mistake, and Tolyan prepares the belt to whip him; the outcome of this gesture is a turning point in the story.

Beyond this, however, there's not much either novel or complex about The Thief. We eventually get to see an older Sanya come to terms with what he thought Tolyan did for him. But in essence the story covers simple ground: A kid misses the father who sired him--even has visions of him--and settles for an inferior, though temporarily more exciting alternative. His mother gropes and groans through an abusive relationship, settling for even less from a fellow human. A society of shabby, unwashed, uncivil comrades puts up with harsh privations and unrealized dreams. Someone's responsible for all this, but he remains a symbolic tattoo--and this colorful, earthy-but-blunt movie about a drab situation remains as deep as the ink on Tolyan's chest.

 
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