A 6-Year-Old Suffers A Thief of Hearts

Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief presents in one makeshift family three of the most unforgettable and complex characters you are likely to encounter on the screen this year, and in an age of miraculously charismatic child actors, Misha Philipchuk shines spectacularly as 6-year-old Sanya, whose traumatic experiences in the war-devastated Soviet Union in 1932 will be remembered decades later by the grown-up Sanya as the unseen narrator. Sanya is born on a barren wintry field to his war-widow mother Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova). As the narrator tells us, Sanya is never to know his real father except as a ghostly apparition that appears periodically through Sanya’s childhood.

Sanya and his mother encounter an impressively decorated officer named Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) on a crowded train full of searchers, like Katya, for work and shelter amid the rubble and chaos of postwar Russia. Tolyan quickly seduces Katya much to Sanya’s discomfiture, and he is forced to accept “Uncle” Tolyan as his surrogate father. Only gradually does Katya discover that Tolyan is a fraud as a supposed war hero, and is actually a larcenous con man with a violent and abusive side to his nature.

Yet he becomes a powerful paternal influence on Sanya, and here The Thief bears a strikingly Oedipal resemblance to Character , the Dutch film that beat out The Thief for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. If Character reminded me in its full-bodied vibrant-with-life-and-feeling characters of Charles Dickens, The Thief brings to mind Maxim Gorky. Though the social and historical landscape of Stalinist Russia is drawn with all its dismal details of privation and repression, Mr. Chukhrai and his associates never allow the background to overshadow the foreground of family feelings and fateful personal decisions.

Tolyan is not without charm as he weaves his nets of deception over the moral instincts of Katya and Sanya. One must survive, he argues, in this brutal and crazy world. When Sanya is beaten up by the local bullies, Tolyan teaches him how to become feared. Sanya goes berserk with a stick and some stones, and when a burly parent complains in threatening tones about Sanya’s behavior, Tolyan destroys him with one well-timed and well-aimed punch, and then unleashes Sanya on his former tormentor.

It is Katya who is most damaged by Tolyan’s duplicities, but when she finally decides to leave him, she finds she cannot bear to lose him forever, and this eventually leads to a final tragedy for all three characters. What is most contemptible about Tolyan is the coldbloodedness of his modus operandi. Tolyan moves Katya and Sanya into a comically congested apartment complex, systematically befriends all the neighbors, throws a big-but-bogus “birthday” party to which all the tenants are invited, and then issues free tickets to the circus for everyone. Tolyan engineers this devious conviviality over Katya’s increasingly impassioned objections. Sanya is too distracted by all the excitement of the merrymaking to realize that he and his mother are being insidiously corrupted. Once Tolyan has gotten all the tenants at the circus, he loots all their apartments and gets on a train with Katya and Sanya for another town where the same process will be repeated.

One of the charms of the movie is its rendering of the instinctive gregariousness of the Russian people in the worst of times and in the direst circumstances. Even when they have only their misery to share, they share it freely and generously. Mr. Chukhrai is not above a little Felliniesque caricature with a pair of ludicrously ungainly male entertainers performing a Mexican song of ancient vintage complete with castanets and token foot stomping. If Mr. Chukhrai winks at the audience with this bizarre spectacle, Tolyan winks at Sanya with the same degree of complicitous warmth when he spins a tall tale about being Stalin’s secret son and a trusted agent against all of Stalin’s enemies, which include many of the wretches he robs.

As with all good narratives, The Thief keeps us off balance with its quick shifts of emotion. Just when you think you have reached the logical climax of the story, the movie goes on to a disillusioning coda in which the story of Sanya attains closure not in the name of a ghostly father, but in the body and soul of a beloved mother. Mr. Chukhrai’s father, Grigori Chukhrai, directed Ballad of a Soldier (1959), much beloved by American art-house audiences desperate to believe that the Russians were too “human” to nuke us. The Thief is better and less sentimental than Ballad of a Soldier , and more worthy of our appreciation now that our abject fear has been replaced by a relieved contempt.

A Mystical Family Reunion; Mastroianni’s Farewell

Manoel de Oliveira’s Voyage to the Beginning of the World turns out to be a movie that seems to be going nowhere, and then suddenly goes somewhere, unlike most movies, which pretend to be going somewhere, and end up going nowhere. Perhaps “suddenly” is too dynamic a word to use for this work by a 90-year-old Portuguese director, who has been making movies since the silent era. I have never seen any other of Mr. de Oliveira’s films but my initial feelings of tolerant appreciation for the work of an elderly director, say, a John Ford with Seven Women (1966), an Alfred Hitchcock with Family Plot (1976), a Jean Renoir with Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir (1971), or a Carl Theodor Dreyer for Gertrud (1964), gave way in this instance to an unanticipated emotional excitement. For me, the gentle reveries of the marvelous and visibly mortal Marcello Mastroianni were superseded by the story’s mystical family reunion, representing a meeting of two worlds, one modern and self-conscious, one ancient and elemental.

Mastroianni (1924-1996) reportedly died before Voyage could be projected. According to Mr. de Oliveira, Mastroianni’s role as the director’s alter ego, also named Manoel, was the 171st of his illustrious career. Mastroianni’s character, a director, finds himself on location in his native Portugal and decides to utilize a break in the shooting to revisit the places of his childhood and early manhood. Manoel is accompanied by three of the actors in his cast: Afonso (Jean-Yves Gautier), born and raised in France but descended from a Portuguese father; Judite (Leonor Silveira); and Duarte (Diogo Dória). At first we are led to believe that Manoel’s memories are the major focus of the film, and a pretext for an extended travelogue interspersed with ruminations on life, death, sex, memory, art, history and politics. When one is relying entirely on English-language subtitles, the line between profundity and banality becomes blurry. Yet even banality in language can accompany a visual mastery in which movement on a roadway with ever shifting camera perspectives can provide a steady stream of metaphors for the passage of time through eternity.

What first made me sit up and take special notice was the materialization of a rustic statue of a small but determined man with a log precariously perched on his shoulder. Gradually, Afonso’s story takes over from Manoel’s, and the search for still another lost father commences. Afonso’s father is long dead. But what Afonso is looking for is a place he has never seen, a place from which Afonso’s father had fled as from a plague at a very early age, and a place in which Afonso’s aunt still lives.

The meeting of Afonso and his aunt, and the illumination it provides for this century’s Portuguese, Spanish and French history, endows Voyage with the intellectual rigor and spiritual grandeur of the greatest films. The simplicity and directness of Mr. de Oliveira’s sensibility on this occasion is astounding.

Life in the Pen

Jonathan Stack’s and Liz Garbus’ The Farm: Angola, USA should rank at the end of the year with the best nonfiction films of 1998 just as the critically praised and curiously unpopular at the box office Out of Sight should rank as one of the best fiction films of 1998. Both films were shot at Angola, though only partially in Out of Sight and then only as a place from which to escape. There is little or no escape in The Farm from the long sentences imposed on its convicted prisoners with apparently little weight given to rehabilitation and moral awakening in the consideration of parole.

Mr. Stack, Ms. Garbus and their collaborators, including co-director Wilbert Rideau, cameramen Sam Henriques and Bob Perrin, narrator Bernard Addison and composer Curtis Lundy, have chosen to focus on six of the current 5,000 inmates, most of them black, in this maximum security prison. The very use of a narrator places the filmmakers in direct opposition to the Frederick Wiseman esthetic of letting the images and conversations do all the editorializing with no interference from the filmmaker.

In fact, Mr. Stack and Ms. Garbus interfere with a vengeance, making their humane and compassionate attitudes toward their six protagonists perfectly clear. I agreed with their positions, particularly with their opposition to capital punishment, but I still felt that they didn’t give enough information about the crimes that had been committed, and the points of view of the victims’ families, which are becoming more influential in all sectors of criminal law and with voters generally.

Correction

Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) was the star of Mad Wednesday , not Eddie Bracken.