'The Thief' exposes Stalinist Russia

September 18, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The deepest impact on screens doesn't always come from asteroids, as is demonstrated by "The Thief," a small, quiet film whose strength lies in its devastating metaphorical power and haunting performances.

Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai, one of Russia's most prominent filmmakers, this deceptively simple tale of loss, love and betrayal resonates far beyond its historical context of Stalinist Russia. And 8-year-old Misha Philipchuk makes a gently indelible screen debut as a young boy buffeted by the powers so carelessly wielded by his elders.

Misha plays Sanya, a 6-year-old boy who has been living a nomadic, marginal existence with his mother Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) since the death of his father in World War II. On their way to yet another town to search for yet another job, Katya makes the acquaintance of a handsome soldier named Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) on the train. The three disembark together and commence a new life as something of a family, with Sanya glomming on to this new father figure with sweet, wide-eyed glee.

Soon enough, it becomes apparent that Tolyan's idea of fatherhood consists of teaching the boy to bite, scratch and fight his way through life, and that's just when he's paying attention to the boy. Usually, he simply locks Sanya out of the family's one-room apartment whenever he prefers not to deal with the youngster. Cruelty doesn't always come in the form of fisticuffs or verbal abuse; it can be as swift and offhanded as a casually locked door.

"The Thief," which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, is a vivid re-creation of the Soviet Union circa 1952, from the communal apartment houses in which Tolyan takes his "family" to the trains on which they continually find themselves.

Chukhrai makes his symbolic intentions clear without being heavy-handed. If Tolyan -- the film's title character in a literal and figurative sense -- can be taken to represent Stalin, and Sanya and his mother the Soviet people, the dictator isn't depicted as a thoroughgoing brute. Like every magnetic despot, Tolyan tempers his acts of injustice with moments of seductive warmth.

The center of "The Thief," both morally and physically, is Sanya, through whose eyes the tale unfolds. Misha possesses an extraordinarily expressive face, and the most unforgettable moments of "The Thief" are his reactions to the world around him -- when he catches a whiff of Tolyan's cologne, for example, or when he hears that Tolyan is really Stalin's son.

By the movie's end, when Tolyan's selfishness has irrevocably affected Sanya's life, the 6-year-old has come to represent the movie's central idea: that neglect is far more destructive than physical abuse and results in a feeling of "nothingness" far more frightening than pathology.

"The Thief" is a lyrical reminder that the only thing more powerful than love is carelessness with its power.

'The Thief'

Starring Vladimir Mashkov, Ekaterina Rednikova, Misha Philipchuk

Directed by Pavel Chukhrai

Rated R (some sexuality, nudity and language)

Released by Stratosphere Entertainment

Running time: 90 minutes

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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