The trust of a child is a delicate thing. You might have it automatically, or you might need to work your ass off to earn it. But once you have it, you could shape a person's attitude and outlook for their entire life. Sanya, the six-year-old hero of Russian writer/director Pavel Chukhraj's The Thief (Vor), wants an authoritative male to put his faith in, and so he gives it to the only one around.
Misha Filipchuk plays the boy, whose father, a World War II soldier, died before he was born. His routine life with his mother (Ekaterina Rednikova) vanishes when they meet a soldier named Toylan (Vladimir Mashkov) on the train, and mom immediately falls for him. They rent a room in a communal apartment, but it's clear that something is off.
Toylan isn't what you'd call the ideal replacement for an unknown father. He spends much of his time trying to get Sanya out of the way so he can have sex, is prone to cruel behavior, and doesn't seem to have his army papers in order. And that's just the first act. But The Thief, which earned a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination in 1998, also shows us how its characters become seduced.
Chukhraj obviously intends to draw parallels between the mother and son's relationship with this brutal but bold man and Russia's relationship with Stalin. But it doesn't matter whether you know or care about such history, because the film's real strength lives in its characters. All three main roles are brilliantly acted, and the performers play off one another with a mix of love, anger and desperation.
Playing the man who invades the mother and child's world, Mashkov skillfully instills the mystery of this unknown, stern figure. He cuts his violence with kindness, and earns the trust of Sanya not only through his mercy, but by teaching him how to exert his power over others. Mashkov never lets us know where Tolyan's affection ends and his ability to manipulate begins. He plays nicely off of Filipchuk, whose performance is remarkable, especially considering his age. The boy has longed for his missing father since he was old enough to long for anything. Telling the story from Sanya's perspective, the film shows how this thief breaks down the boy's defenses and earns--or maybe steals--his love.
The character of Sanya's mother doesn't have quite the same intriguing dynamic, as she falls head over heels for Tolyan the minute she sees him. But Rednikova completes a cycle of emotions, shifting from jealousy to denial to confusion and anger to desperation.
What's so amazing is that the story's events mean something different to each of the characters. It's not until we've stepped out of the swift motion of the now and look back on things that we get a true sense of everyone's perspective. A particularly staggering scene features Sanya six years later (Dima Chigaryov), as he revisits the cold truth of his past. The scene is coldly frank, yet drops more hints of doubt that will haunt our hero for the rest of his life.
Chukhraj shoots the film with a sense of wonder, mixing nostalgic warmth and movement with a cold, muted atmosphere. His direction captures the excited gaze of youth while letting us in on the realities of 1950s Russia. This film is an incredible character study.
Olive FIlms' DVD restores The Thief's original present-day ending, which had previously been cut from the American release out of fear that it would confuse non-Russian audiences with its allegory of how Stalinism continues to affect the country. The producers needn't have worried. The ending provides a much needed denouement to accompany a hectic patch of life.
The picture quality is acceptable, but I wouldn't push my praise far beyond that. I would guess that it comes from a PAL video transfer. It's a little soft, shows problems with dark scenes and suffers from slight ghosting due to the conversion to NTSC. The source material for the transfer is mostly clean, but scratches and dirt are apparent, and flare up noticeably a couple times during the film. Compression artifacts are visible at times. The muted colors appear accurate, and the warm use of light in the cinematography comes off to good effect.
I was quite surprised to find a full-screen 4x3 transfer, rather than one that preserves the 1.85:1 theatrical presentation (according to sever sites). After all, the people most interested in this release are also likely to be sticklers for correct aspect-ratios, like myself. And in this day and age of 16x9 TVs, it's even more puzzling.
But I imagine that if the financial prospects of this release were big enough to cover the cost of a new transfer, it might have taken less than 12 years for the original cut to be released. Olive Films confirmed that this was the only transfer available of the film's full cut.
On the bright side, the compositions don't look distractingly cropped, but the transfer clearly isn't a straight open-matte because cropping it to 1.85:1, results in heads being chopped off and other important information left out of the frame. (And even if it didn't, you wouldn't be able to zoom on your 16x9 TV if you needed the burnt-in English subtitles.)
UPDATE: Reader Jay Edelstein informs me that the out-of-print Columbia DVD (featuring the shorter version of the film, from what I can tell) contained a nice anamorphic transfer and optional subtitles. If you get your hands on this version, you can switch to this DVD for the last 10 minutes.
The disc features the film's original stereo Russian track and unremovable, burnt-in English subtitles. The audio is a bit noisy, with slight analogue hiss and distortion, but is clear and well-balanced.
The DVD contains a few features that can be consumed in about 15 minutes. The Behind the Scenes segment is a collection of clips from the film and interviews with the cast and director conducted during the 1997 Venice Film Festival. It contains some good information--and Filipchuk sure is a cute little rascal--but its 12 minutes don't go into much depth.
The photo gallery contains 15 stills, the first five of which are better quality than the last 10, which look like frame grabs from the disc. The international trailer contains some of the film's most memorable images, but isn't subtitled.
It would be easy to highly recommend a pristine DVD of The Thief. Unfortunately, this release doesn't hold up to modern-day quality standards. However, given the currently available materials, it's doubtful that a better release will come in the near future. So depending on how interested you are in the film, it may be worth a purchase. If you're sensitive about picture quality, it's still definitely worth renting. (And if you can get the old Columbia version to augment it, that may be the best option.)
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.