Two Russian soldiers, one battle-seasoned and the other barely into his boots and uniform, are taken prisoner by an anxious Islamic father from a remote village hoping to trade them for his captured son.
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The beauty of this movie is that you, as the reader of the subtitles, are the only one who knows what is going on. The woman and the two men all speak different languages. It is a comedy of errors up until the end.
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In 1946, a soldier fathers a child then dies before its birth. Jump to 1952: on a train, the child and his mother meet a handsome soldier who makes a play for her. She accepts. Posing as a married family, the soldier finds them a rooming house where he becomes everyone's favorite through his good looks and generosity. Meanwhile he gives the boy, Sanya, lessons in life: to fight back, to win at all costs. The child's mother, Katya, is head-over-heels in love with Tolyan, the soldier, but the relationship becomes rocky when Tolyan's true plans for the rooming house become clear. It starts them on a treadmill of flight that risks Katya's life, Tolyan's liberty, and Sanya's trust.Written by
[All trivia items for this title are spoilers.]
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Sanya - 48 Years Old:
I was born right after the war, in 1946. My mother was going to the village where her relatives lived and gave birth to me right on the road. I never saw my father. He was covered with wounds when he returned from the war and died six months before I was born, but throughtout my childhood I kept thinking of him, trying to imagine him.
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The Russian release features an additional 14 minutes at the end which depict Sanya as an adult. After he shoots Tolyan, the film cuts directly to modern times where Sanya is a colonel of the Russian army. He explains that he has had to kill many times since that day and that his profession justifies it. In a war-torn village, he mistakes an old man for Tolyan. He embraces the old vagrant, who dies in his arms. Upon inspection of his back, he finds that there is no Panther tattoo. It is not Tolyan. As he leaves the village in his own personal staff car, he takes off his shirt. At this point Russian audiences see for the first time that Sanya has a Panther tattoo identical to Tolyan's on his back. (Some non-Russian versions finished the film with a shot of Sanya at 12 lying in his bunk with this tattoo. Russians did not see that scene.) The original Russian version ends with a flashback to Sanya at 6 peering out the window of the train and seeing his father waving to him on the back of a passing railcar. It is rumored that 'Pavel Chukhraj' cut the non-Russian versions for two reasons. First, he wanted to make it shorter and more attractive to foreign critics and film festivals. He also felt it might confuse and complicate the meaning of the film for viewers not familiar with modern Russia. See more »
This is stark reality, beautifully shot and faintly reminiscent of the masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds
In the icy wastelands of Yaroslavl in Stalin's Soviet Union, a young woman, Katja (Ekaterina Rednikova), gives birth on the side of a dirt track. The year is 1946, the war has left the country stricken with poverty, her husband will soon die and everything is ever so slightly grim.
Six years later Katja and her young son, Sanya, are still wandering, looking for a place to settle and someone to take care of them. On a crowded train travelling across country, Katya exchanges steamy glances with a vigorous young army officer, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), and by the next stop, she, the officer and Sanya have become an instant family. Only one problemo. Tolyan is, in actual fact, a thieving scoundrel with more than hint of brutality mixed in with his charm.
Of course, from there on in everything goes from bad to worse. Let's face it have you ever seen a Russian slapstick comedy or even, for that matter, an Eastern European one. The Thief doesn't try to imitate the romanticism of Hollywood's more famous tales of con men - Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting. No, this is stark reality, beautifully shot and faintly reminiscent of the masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds or indeed something from Charles Dickens. Except without the happy ending.
The Thief is always watchable mainly because of its two male leads. The wide-eyed scared little boy played by Misha Philipchuk possesses a wonderfully expressive face and Vladimir Mashkov revels in playing the violent rogue, who rolls razor blades in his mouth for light kicks. The relationship between these two serves as the core of the film. At first the boy, who is haunted by images of his dead father, refuses to give in to Tolyan's stern demand that he address him as "Daddy," yet hesitantly grows fascinated by Tolyan's slick manner and tyrannical brutality.
As for Katja? Once the lust departs and she realises Tolyan is no soldier, but a liar and common thief, she is bitterly disappointed, yet her inability to leave him taints Sanya and eventually leads to tragedy for them all. Their plight is only worsened by the tyranny of communist Russia, where Josef Stalin pervades his people and the landscape, like, of course, Big Brother. Tolyan wears a tattoo of 'laughing boy' Stalin on his chest. Everyone toasts to Comrade Stalin. We become privy to Stalin's Russia in documentary footage. In fact as a harsh, relentless father figure for the uncertain young Sanya, Tolyan also serves as an emblematic double for Stalin and his ruthless domination over a deluded nation. However, Tolyan may be brute, but he comes off lightly in relation to the procession of vicious, corrupt soldiers who claim they're "not moved by whimpering or by kids" and in one unforgettable scene force "criminals" to run in the snow past bloodhounds, on the way to the trucks that will eventually take them to Siberia.
The Thief is moving, without being overly sentimental. It is no surprise that this stunning Russian movie was the nominee of that country for a 1997 American Oscar.
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