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JULY 27, 1998: 

The Thief

In the aftermath of World War II in Russia, the widowed Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova), whose husband has been killed in battle, believes her troubles are over when she meets the handsome, cocky soldier Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) during a train ride. Her six-year-old son, Sanya (Misha Philipchuk), is jealous and suspicious, but a feverish Katya succumbs to romance. The three of them move into an already crowded collective apartment, and soon Tolyan's real nature of is revealed: he's the thief of the film's title, who steals pitilessly from those who take him in. He's also an exponent of tough love, forcing meek little Sanya to punch out at the students at school who abuse him.

Tolyan is a bad guy, but he's also alluring in his meanness, just like Joseph Stalin, whose face he has tattoo'd on his body. Pavel Chukrai's film is a political allegory of a sort, and there are also overt Hamlet allusions: the boy's ghostly father appears dreamlike and asks for his death to be avenged. So Tolyan is not only a Stalin stand-in but also Hamlet's fratricidal and usurping uncle Claudius. That's too much symbolism for what is essentially a modest, well-told melodrama. The Thief's chief attraction (and probably the reason it got American distribution) is Philipchuk's winning, blue-eyed little boy.

-- Gerald Peary


Russian noir comes of age with Alexei Balabanov's Brother, a tough, taut, expertly made gangster movie about a baby-faced former soldier boy from the countryside (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) who takes today's St. Petersburg by storm, creating a trail of dead Chechen thugs and blown-away local mafia before hitchhiking by truck to his future destination. Where next? "Moscow!" he says with a crooked smile.

Director Balabanov is brilliant at getting at the cruel, chaotic, anything-goes Yeltsin-era Russia. Still, the movie belongs to Bodrov, who previously played the nice young soldier in Prisoner of the Mountains (which was made by his father, Sergei Bodrov Sr.). In real life, the younger Bodrov is a youthful academic with a master's degree in Italian art history from Moscow University. On screen here, he's a primal throwback to Cagney in The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, a charismatic killer with a wan smile, a goofy, junior-high-bully's voice, a dim intelligence, and a disquieting sweetness, which can appear on display just moments after he's saturated a seedy enemy with hot bullets. He murders and then he listens lovingly to his Sony Walkman: there's a great score throughout of throbbing Russian devil rock!

-- Gerald Peary

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