In the Name of the Father Figure

Russia's The Thief unfolds in the shadow of Stalin.

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How vulnerable children are! And how wounding life can be.
The Thief, a Russian film set in the post-World War II Stalinist era, was one of five nominees vying for the 1997 Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film. (It lost to Character, from the Netherlands.) Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai, The Thief is a grim, painful movie about love and hate, devotion and betrayal, and the conflicted emotions that bind people to one another. On a more allegorical level, it can be read as a statement on the contentious, yet deeply dependent relationship that exists between members of a totalitarian state and the tyrant who rules them.

The winner of five NIKA Awards (the Russian equivalent of the Oscars), The Thief concerns the relationships between three characters: six-year-old Sanya (Misha Philipchuk in his film debut), his mother Katya, and the army officer who enters their lives. Sanya never knew his father, who died shortly after the war ended, but he has recurring images of him. Like millions of their countrymen, the boy and his mother (Ekaterina Rednikova) travel aimlessly across Russia--in their case by train--trying to survive.

A handsome, self-assured young army officer named Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) boards the train and is instantly attracted to Katya. For her part, she sees him as the answer to her prayers and immediately begins living with him, going so far as to pose as his wife. The trio move into a communal apartment, already occupied by several other families.

A masculine, forceful personality--and a man prone to violence--Tolyan proves a strict disciplinarian. Sanya is both cowed and fascinated by the older man, the first male authority figure in his life. Tolyan's view of life is that "might makes right," and he pushes Sanya to "pummel" his enemies, using any method necessary. Despite his roughness, however, Tolyan seems to care genuinely for Katya and her son.

It isn't long before Katya learns that her lover is not an army officer at all, but rather a common thief and con artist who moves into communal dwellings, then robs his neighbors and runs away. She tries to leave him but is too deeply in love with him; instead, she becomes an unwilling accomplice in his criminal deeds. Eventually, Tolyan is arrested and sent to prison. Sanya lives for the day that Tolyan will return and claim him. But life rarely offers such fairy-tale endings.

On the surface the film's title refers to Tolyan's occupation, but it could just as easily be interpreted as the robbing of young Sanya's belief in people and the destruction of his hopes and dreams. Clearly, the love/hate relationship that the boy has with his surrogate father will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Thief is beautifully photographed. Many scenes take place in railway yards, and cinematographer Vladimir Klimov fills them with swirls of steam and fog, which give the images a dreamlike beauty.

The acting is top-notch. Mashkov, a popular film and stage star in Russia, proves a charismatic Tolyan--virile and strong, but also deeply intimidating. He creates a character that is both good and bad, sincere and shallow, loving and selfish. His performance earned him the NIKA Award as Best Actor. Rednikova, who brings requisite femininity, vulnerability, and sorrow to the part of Katya, also walked off with a NIKA. (The picture also received top honors for music, directing, and as Best Film of the Year.)

With his wide-eyed expressiveness, eight-year-old Philipchuk makes a heart-wrenching Sanya. The young actor inhabits the role completely. Sanya narrates the film not as the six-year-old child he is when it opens, but rather looking back from adulthood--an adulthood filled with misery and disappointment.

While the story succeeds beautifully on its own terms, it is also possible to see the film as a metaphor for the relationship between Stalin and the Russian people, who feared and hated his cruelty, yet remained deeply dependent on and loyal to him. People referred to Stalin as "Father," and his iron hand and multiple betrayals have affected--some would say "doomed"--every generation since his time.

The Thief.
Written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai. Starring Vladimir Mashkov, Ekaterina Rednikova, and Misha Philipchuk.

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