What if I go to Italy and my mother comes here looking for me? How will she find me?
So asks Vanya, a six-year-old boy in a depressing orphanage in the middle of Russian nowhere. A nice Italian couple have applied to adopt him. This ought to be a profitable transaction for everyone — yielding a bright future for Vanya, blissful parenthood for the Italians, and plenty of Euros for the grasping Russian intermediaries. But the latter haven’t counted on the power of a child’s longing for his real mother. The boy’s dreams of being reunited with her are intensified when the mother of another boy arrives at the orphanage in search of her son, only to find he was adopted out just two weeks earlier. Vanya is witness to her agony. He resolves to find his own mother, and applies himself to this seemingly preposterous plan with resourcefulness and determination.
The story is pure Dickens, and has the characters to go with it — the pathetic, drunken orphanage director, the bullying older boys, petty criminals, the kind-hearted prostitutes. At the centre is a young child thrust uopn his own wits, no sooner out of one predicament than into the next, at the mercy of a succession of unknown adults. Another small boy in the orphanage at one point advises Vanya that there are two kinds of adults who might adopt him — the wicked ones, who sell children for organ transplants, and the good ones, who really want to give him a home.
But like any good Dickens story, this tale has a strong moral current to balance the menace, making it less bleak than other films of the street kid genre like Pixote and Salaam Bombay. Vanya’s heart is so pure and his cause so just, that obstacles melt before him, and villains’ consciences awaken.
The bitter winter landscapes and decaying Soviet-era infrastructure set the mood perfectly, and the acting does justice to a host of superbly-scripted characters. But the miracle ingredient is the mesmerisng performance of Kolya Spiridonov, who plays Vanya. His feat in portraying the calm, determined, Christ-like orphan, is an extraordinary tour de force for such a young actor. The performance turns what might have been a tall tale into something utterly convincing.