Stranded by car troubles in a rural, snowy nowhere in the opening scenes of The Italian, an Italian man assures his wife that their misfortune should be seen as an opportunity in disguise, a chance to see the "real Russia." He could be thinking of the barren landscape, or he might be referring to what happens next, namely the arrival of a gaggle of orphans who help them on their way. In a country so seemingly overrun with abandoned children, that arrival seems almost inevitable. Of course, it probably helps that the couple is traveling to the children's orphanage to adopt a 6-year-old boy (Kolya Spiridonov) and bring him back to Italy. While their initial meeting with Spiridonov goes well, the two-month waiting period triggers an identity crisis that eventually sends the kid in search of the mother who abandoned him.
Making his feature debut, documentary and TV director Andrei Kravchuk plays Spiridonov's quest as a journey of discovery, first within the confines of his barely functional orphanage, and then on the road. It's best in the early scenes, which depict how the mostly good-intentioned but neglectful orphanage heads have allowed the older residents take up administrative tasks, sending kids out to earn money washing cars (and, it's suggested, though never confirmed, to less savory occupations) and doling out punishment for any disloyalty or profits not deposited in the collective coffer. (The socialist dream lives on!) Some of Spiridonov's older classmates take pity on him, however, and after he learns to read, he decides he'll have to do the finding himself.
Here, the film loses its way a bit, even as its protagonist finds his. Before reaching a bittersweet finale that doesn't ring as loudly as it should, The Italian starts to look too much like a neo-realist Home Alone sequel, as Spiridonov outwits his pursuers in one scene after another. Kravchuk repeatedly steers Spiridonov away from the truly awful perils that might await an unaccompanied boy in Russia, but he's so successful at capturing the grime and danger of the country's neglected regions that this starts to feel a bit like grace. Spiridonov carries himself with such sweet, soulful determination that it's impossible not to root for him, and though the film doesn't create much suspense about the outcome of his quest, the images of a Russia so filled with crumbling surfaces and dead-end lives that its very future seems in doubt gives the journey meaning.