The Russian director Andrei Kravchuk has a background in documentaries and it shows. His first dramatic feature, "The Italian," takes off from a crisis that hit Russian cities in the late '90s following the collapse of the banking and financial institutions. Children, many of them homeless, invaded the streets to survive. Overrun orphanages were common.
For its first half, "The Italian" is set in just such an orphanage in the provinces. Six-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) has been abandoned there. An affluent, childless Italian couple seeking to adopt takes an immediate liking to him, much to the envy of the other children. But Vanya has his heart set on another scenario. He wants to find his mother.
To do so, he first learns to read so that he can pore over the confidential papers in the orphanage and learn of her whereabouts.
Kravchuk is a combination of realist and confectioner. The scenes inside the orphanage are often powerful. We can see how the children have created an inner community with its own complete set of rules.
The adult administrators, well played by Yuri Itskov and Maria Kuznetsova, are corrupt but not unfeeling. Kravchuk doesn't overdo the Dickensian stuff, even when he shows us how some of the kids resort to prostitution to survive.
But Vanya is a bit too twinkly an urchin to be entirely believable. Although the movie is based on an actual incident of a young boy searching for his birth mother, it has a contrived quality that consistently undercuts its verity.
Kravchuk's model here is the great neorealist director Vittorio de Sica, whose 1946 film "Shoeshine" was also about dispossessed children. That film achieved a harrowing grandeur. De Sica's powers of observation were so acute, and his empathy so deep, that he transformed a simple story into something altogether transcendent.
It is unfair, of course, to compare Kravchuk with de Sica, except as a way to show the difference between talent and genius. True, there are many admirable things about "The Italian." It is not easy to use a documentary style for a scripted story. But it's just because the orphanage scenes are so good that the whimsical sequences stand out as fluff.
Perhaps the film would have been great if Kravchuk had attempted to extend Vanya's story into a broader canvas. In a sense, Vanya stands for all of Russia, or at least its future. His mission of finding his mother has metaphoric power. Kravchuk, however, is a bit too fond of clouds with silver linings.
"The Italian" is not so much about present-day Russia as it is an upbeat fable of what Kravchuk envisions as its future. It's a wish-fulfillment fantasy posing as hard-edged realism. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual content, language, and thematic issues.