Ten years after his award-winning “Remember Me as I Am,” director Pavel Chukhrai returns with a strongly told and acted tale about a young boy growing up in 1950s USSR. Anti-heroic and comically deadpan to the max in depicting a cruel, unjust world where only the tough survive, “The Thief” falls into the top echelon of new Russian cinema, alongside films including “The Brother” and “Prisoner of the Mountains.” Given the film’s merits, it is particularly disappointing to see the story fall apart in the last 15 minutes and end rather conventionally. With a reworked finale, pic could develop a strong arthouse following; left alone, it’s pleasing but not stunning.
Pic opens with a flash: Young war widow Katia (Ekatarina Rednikova) gives birth to the hero in a cold, muddy field while a soldier in uniform looks on indifferently. The baby is Sanya, next seen as a wide-eyed 6-year-old (Misha Philipchuk) traveling on a train with his mother. There they met Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), an army officer with roguish good looks. He seduces Katia without ado, and a trio is formed.
Kicked out of his mother’s bed in no uncertain terms, Sanya at first hates his mother’s lover. But gradually Tolyan becomes the father figure the little boy desperately needs. He’s an old-school macho who teaches Sanya basic survival tactics: how to be “a man” and make other kids respect him. It comes as a shock when mother and son realize that Tolyan is a burglar and pickpocket posing as a soldier, but Katia is too much in love to leave him. His robberies, mixing guile and utter cynicism, keep the impromptu family on the run. Shortly after he is arrested and sentenced to seven years in Siberia, Katia dies of a botched abortion, leaving Sanya alone and dreaming of Tolyan’s return.
Pic awkwardly flashes forward through some 30 more years, ending during another war, but by then the story is over. This last part could be gainfully excised — Sanya’s mental wounds need no further elucidation, and it is clear he will go on looking for the thief for the rest of his life.
Chukhrai’s three-member cast creates a subtle atmosphere of understated cruelty mixed with unstated love. As the handsome thief, Mashkov dominates the film with his self-assured charm. Philipchuk is a rare, extremely natural child thesp, able to bond audiences to his fate without sentimentality. As the pretty Katia, Rednikova shows the toughness beneath her outward frailty.
Before losing its way in the ending, Chukhrai’s script, a drama always on the verge of comedy, is full of movement and invention, leaving few dead moments in Marina Dobryanskaya and Natalia Kucherenko’s modern editing. The postwar atmosphere is attractively re-created, while Vladimir Klimov’s overcast lighting stresses the gloom waiting for the characters just beyond Tolyan’s rebelliously merry lifestyle. Showing how far Russian movies have come, the Stalinist epoch is summed up in a tattoo on Tolyan’s chest, which he opportunistically displays whenever he’s in a pinch.