Academic journal article CineAction

Suffer the Children

Academic journal article CineAction

Suffer the Children

Article excerpt

Most of the best films about children are about boys: Shoeshine (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1947), and Bicycle Thieves (1948), for instance. Moreover, most of the best films about children were made by Italian neorealists, as well as by directors following their socially as well as politically realistic example, from Luis Bunuel with Los Olvidados (1951) and Rene Clement with Forbidden Games (1952), to Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981), Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988), Gianni Amelio's Stolen Children (1992), Samira Makhmalbaf's.The Apple (1998), and Bertrand Tavernier's It All Started Here (1999). Now we can add a Russian to this list of Latin Americans, Frenchmen, Italians, Indians, and Iranians, makers all of "children's films." His name is Andrei Kravchuk, and his film is called The Italian (2005), in seeming homage to neorealism's country of origin. (Kravchuk was preceded in this style and genre by at least one fellow Russian, Vitali Kanevsky, with his 1989 film Freeze. Die. Come to Life.

One of the questions that attends The Italian and the rest of the above-named films is less why they are about children (that's easy: often one can see a war-torn, religiously-divided, or economically-distressed society more clearly, more freshly, through the eyes of its youngest members) than how those children gave the performances they did. For, however lovely among film's powers its relationship to children may be (not children in the audience but those on screen), that relationship is also quizzical. Certainly something about performing before a camera stimulates a child's natural instinct to pretend. But all children play and pretend in one way or another; the real wonder is how, without knowledge and often without ambition, a child will behave on a movie set like a pro, in every sense of that word. I'm not necessarily talking here about those children whose parents want them to become film stars, because an extraordinary performance can come from a child without any subsequent career, such as the little girl in Jean Benoit-Levy's La Maternelle (1932). The viewer is left wondering whether such a child remembers, later in life, that she had once moved thousands--in fact, still moves them.

And what about Kolya Spiridonov? This boy, who was nine or ten at the time The Italian was made, plays a six-year-old (named Vanya Solntsev) in the film's leading role, its mainstay part. Spiridonov had already been acting for two years prior to this one, in several pictures that never made it to the United States. Still, with his pale blond hair, scrawny frame, and wide but tired, cautious eyes, there is no child-star quality about him. How did he create the thoughtful, oddly private performance that he gives in The Italian? As his director, Kravchuk probably wooed Spiridonov and won his confidence, but can that really account for the relative depth of this child's acting? Why did he want to do it well? Pleasing his director and his parents, being praised and having his ego massaged, yes, but where did he find the sheer understanding to play the part, and did he even realize that he had found it? It seems fitting to fantasize that the camera speaks a secret, attractive language to certain children who comprehend it and respond. If so, this is a conversation that the camera and the child can, and will, forever keep secret From all the grownups around.

Let's start with grownup number one in this case, Andrei Kravchuk. The Italian is his first solo feature: in 2000, he codirected A Christmas Mystery (unseen by me), and he has also directed a few documentaries, made several short films, and done some work for television. One of Kravchuk's documentaries was about his teacher at the St. Petersburg Institute of Film and Television, Semen Aranovich (1934-1996), himself a documentary filmmaker who infused his feature films with authentic, documentary-like detail. (As we can see from Summer Trip to the Seaside [1978], where he recruited actors from juvenile correctional institutions or foster-care facilities in order to render more accurately his characters' harsh childhood experiences during the early years of World War II. …

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