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Review: 'Thief' steals glimpses of Russia's devastation, survival

Web posted on: Thursday, September 03, 1998 4:07:33 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Every few years someone directs a movie about a child's experiences during, or just after, the near-apocalypse of World War II. My favorite of the bunch is John Boorman's touching, almost celebratory "Hope and Glory," a movie that's well worth checking out on video if you haven't seen it before. Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" (though it's a bit pushy) has its moments, too, but is far less consistently on the money than Boorman's film.

"Hope and Glory" deals with the German bombing of London as seen through a 10-year-old's eyes. The devastation of an entire city is portrayed more as a magical game than an act of aggression, its featured prizes being deadly fireworks and prized chunks of still-warm shrapnel. Spielberg, on the other hand, handled his story every bit like the Spielberg we came to expect by 1987 -- half awe-inspiring and half not knowing when to quit.

"The Thief," a Russian film directed by Pavel Chukhrai, was that country's nominee for Best Foreign Film at last year's Oscars. This one, however, doesn't leave a lot of room for the kid to play around. It has moments of warmth, but that warmth turns out to be one character's very deliberate survival tactic rather than a welcome display of humanism.

Not a masterpiece, but absorbing

Set in Russia in the early 1950s, there are too many over-crowded apartments stocked with too many worn-out survivors to imbue things with a real sense of hopefulness. But the child continues looking forward.

It's an absorbing character study, beautifully shot, featuring two performances that more than balance out the screenplay's slowly mounting sense of dread. I don't think it's a masterpiece like a lot of critics are saying (somebody somewhere will call just about anything a masterpiece, given the properly lowered standards), but it certainly gets the job done, very tastefully, without a trace of distracting flash.

The movie stars Misha Philipchuk as Sanya, a 6-year-old who is first seen traveling on a cramped train with his beautiful mother, Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova, in the film's only under-written role.) At this point in time, the whole of Russian society seems to be scrambling to survive, the war having left not just cities, but hearts and minds battered to near-collapse.

Katya (who gave birth to her son on a muddy roadside shortly after the war ended) lost her husband in the fighting, and is now living day to day. Her fortunes change for the better when Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), a handsome soldier, boards the train and the two begin an affair.

Soon, Sanya has a father, or at least as close to a father as he's ever going to have. The trio eventually moves into one of those overcrowded apartments to set up a general facsimile of a household. Katya and Tolyan's days are filled with passionate sex ... and trying to keep Sanya, who's grown increasingly fascinated with the charismatic soldier, out of their hair.

Love and kisses swapped for abuse

At first, everything is love and kisses, but Tolyan quickly starts treating the child as something less than a son. His warring instincts cause him to be abusive towards both the woman and the boy, with a lot of the pragmatic lessons he teaches Sanya focusing on violence and steely-eyed aggression.

One day, Tolyan invites all the people living in the apartment to a day at the circus, supposedly because he's grown fond of them and wants them to think of him as family. Unfortunately, he slips out while everyone is watching the clowns and jugglers, and proceeds to steal everything they have.

This horrifies Katya, but she recognizes that Tolyan is her only route to survival. She and Sanya pack up and flee to a new city with "Dad," who's now revealed himself to be nothing more than an extremely wily thief.

The process continues in the next town, as Tolyan pulls Sanya deeper and deeper into his schemes, going so far as to climb a fire escape and push the child through a window so that he can unlock the door to a local doctor's elegant apartment. This will all catch up with Tolyan after a while. A lengthy stay in Siberia awaits him, but the woman and her child continue to cling to him and pray. It's an emotionally brutal little story in a lot of ways, one that you need to prepare for.

Innocence lost, miraculously played

The almost miraculously controlled performance by Philipchuk eases us through it, though. You sometimes find work like this coming from children (especially in foreign films) who couldn't possibly know exactly how they're managing it. Philipchuk's wide-eyed wonder at the increasingly coldhearted ploys that continue to unfold in front of him is one of the most memorable sights I've seen at the movies this year. Innocence lost is accentuated by the innocence of the performer who's delivering the message.

The movie falls out of focus a bit in the later stages, but there's a violent payoff that's all the more affecting for being so decisive. You've clung to hope with this child throughout the story, and that hope is taken away -- by the child himself -- in one quick flash. The pain is palpable, and something that you won't forget very easily.

"The Thief" is not as violent as it might have been. There are a couple of heated sex scenes, and moments of both male and female nudity. (At one point, Tolyan takes Sanya to a public bathhouse.) Rated R. 92 minutes.

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