Toby Tyler takes a wrong turn in finely crafted yet ultimately conflicted drama “King of Thieves.” Though less shocking overall than helmer Ivan Fila’s 1996 pic “Lea,” similar theme of children in borderline graphic peril at the hands of ruthless adults is equally discomfiting and will prove a tough sell beyond socially conscious fests (where films about forced immigration continue to take center stage) and select Euro theatrical gigs.
In the fall of 2000, a Ukrainian father sells his 9-year-old son Barbu (Yasha Kultiasov) and his older sister Mimma (Julia Khanverdieva) to superficially jolly yet unscrupulous showman Caruso (Lazar Ristovski) who promises the talented youngsters will be featured in his Berlin-based Circus Luna. He takes the kids to the German capital, all right, but immediately splits them up, losing Mimma in a poker game to oily pimp Cardinal (Paulus Manker) and enslaving Barbu with a group of children being groomed to perform petty thefts.
Barbu is tutored by cynical new pal Marcel (Oktay Ozdemir) under the watchful eyes of henchmen Birol (Birol Unel). Despite his ruthlessness, Caruso finds himself growing fond of the youngster — as is his shut-in, strung-out significant other Julia (Katharina Thalbach), a bitter, bald junkie disabled by a tragic trapeze accident years earlier.
As the seriousness of his situation dawns on the youngster, Barbu works to rescue his sister and free himself, finding his own inner determination and an unexpected ally in Julia.
Fila is clearly concerned with the often dangerous lot of disadvantaged children in impoverished countries, and in fact constructed the script after extensive research into organized crime networks in Italy and Germany during the 1990s. Yet pic’s grubby subject matter and the rough treatment of the kids is never less than creepy and often downright distasteful.
Ristovski overplays Caruso to a tiresome degree, while young Kultiasov’s charm oscillates between genuine and strained; their bonding scenes have a forced camaraderie that undercuts drama’s veracity. Only German vet Thalbach, resembling Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu, manages to sell pic’s wished-for vibe of wretched despair and hard-fought redemption.
Tech credits are seamlessly pro, a notable achievement considering half-completed production was shuttered for two years as the young lead continued to grow. Slovak coin came to the rescue, with pic repping that country in 2003 foreign lingo Oscar race.