[Screen It]


(1997) (Vladimir Mashkov, Misha Philipchuk) (R)

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Subtitled Drama: In post WWII Russia, a young woman and her son take up with a Russian soldier who turns out to be a common thief.
Born on the side of the road to his young single mother, Katya (EKATERINA REDNIKOVA), Sanya (MISHA PHILIPCHUCK) is a six-year-old boy who's never had a father. Heading to an unknown destination aboard a crowded train in post WWII Russia, the two meet Tolyan (VLADIMIR MASHKOV), a ruggedly handsome Russian soldier.

Seemingly desperate for a man in her life, Katya has sex with Tolyan and then she and Sanya accompany him as they rent a room at a local boarding house, posing as a happy family. There, and when not sleeping with Katya, Tolyan teaches Sanya how to stand up to the local bullies and that winning and intimidating others are the keys to surviving in their world.

He's also quite charming to the other residents, and encourages them to attend local events, during which he returns home and steals their belongings. He then gathers up his makeshift family, heads to the train station, and moves on to another town to set up the same burglary ring.

Although Katya can't stand what he does, or the fact that he flirts with other women, she believes that she loves him and sees that Sanya is beginning to see him as the only father figure he's ever known. Even so, Tolyan's uneasiness around other Russian officers and his continued thievery soon set into motion a series of events that will change the lives of the three forever.

Unless they're into foreign films, it's not very likely.
For some sexuality, nudity and language.
  • EKATERINA REDNIKOVA plays the single mother who quickly has sex with a stranger in order to allow her and her son to accompany him (and for him to protect and provide for them).
  • MISHA PHILIPCHUCK plays a six-year-old boy who suddenly finds himself with a father figure for the first time in his life.
  • VLADIMIR MASHKOV plays the thief who may or may not be a soldier, and who uses Katya and Sanya in a guise to aide his thieving ways.


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    Featuring great performances from its three lead performers, this Russian picture -- one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars -- is often compelling, but unfortunately falls apart as it nears its conclusion. Up until the story suddenly crashes under the weight of plot contrivances and an awkward jump ahead in time, however, it's an intriguing look at life in post WWII, Stalinist Russia.

    Filmed in a bleak, near monochromic fashion, writer/director Pavel Chukhrai has delivered a symbolic exposť of thievery occurring among many differing, yet connected levels. The film certainly shows the effects of Stalin's grip on his country in that era, and how nearly everything in the citizen's lives -- such as money and happiness -- has been "stolen" from them by the government.

    People are downtrodden and poverty is everywhere, all of which proves to be an effective contrast to the charming, and apparently well to do soldier who temporarily, but falsely brightens the lives of those he encounters.

    Then there's the stealing of people's hearts, where that title character not only sweeps the young and desperate mother from her feet with the hopes of a better life, but also ultimately betrays the young boy who slowly but surely grows to see the man as his father.

    Having replaced the visions of the real father he never knew with this man and then losing the rest of his family indirectly due to Tolyan's actions, Sanya realizes he can never have them back and eventually takes what he believes to be appropriate recourse for such thievery.

    The most obvious component in this theme -- the soldier as a common burglar -- rounds out the symbolism, and the total of this multilayered approach gives the film great depth and makes it nearly always compelling to watch.

    Unfortunately, Chukhrai allows everything to unravel as the story draws to a close. Perhaps material was edited from this release -- which might explain the haphazardness that follows -- but once Tolyan is sent away to prison, events suddenly occur out of nowhere and the story flashes forward in time to bring the plot to its end.

    While the story obviously needed a conclusion, what's presented feels forced and contrived. Although a few other parts of the film feel the same way -- such as Katya suddenly taking her son and moving in with a stranger after a brief, vertical liaison in a train hallway -- the ending, while symbolically clear, doesn't feel congruous with the rest of the film. It's as if Chukhrai didn't know how to get out of the situation he had created, and the haphazardly constructed and presented scenes that end the film betray what had been built up before then.

    The cast members, however, deliver great performances that make up for most of those problems. Vladimir Mashkov, as the titular being, creates a compelling character who's equally charming, menacing and, at times, a near-loving father-like figure. While we grow to dislike him as does Katya, we can't help but be mesmerized by the character and Mashkov's performance.

    Ekaterina Rednikova plays the desperate mother, and delivers a poignant take on a character who will put up with nearly anything as long as she believes there's a glimmer of hope and belief that having a thief for a "husband" is better than having no one at all.

    The real find, and scene stealer, however, is young newcomer Misha Philipchuck. About as natural a child actor as they come, this saucer-eyed boy is not only completely believable in his role, but his facial expressions and reactions -- ranging the total gamut of childhood emotions in a still complex, and yet to be understood adult world -- are often priceless and certainly don't betray his thespian naiveness.

    If not for the fact that the picture collapses in the last ten or so minutes, this would have been a near tremendous effort. As it stands, it's still quite good, and its performances and strong -- if not bleak -- visual qualities will stick with you for quite some time after seeing it. We give "The Thief" a 7 out of 10.

    While it's extremely doubtful most kids will want to see this film, here's a quick look at the content. Several sexual encounters occur, and while only one involves nudity (bare breasts), the others include movement and sexually related sounds.

    In addition, one of them occurs in the presence of a six-year-old (albeit the adults are under covers and trying to be discreet in their one-room apartment). Nonsexual nudity occurs in a male "locker room" bathhouse where we see many instance of male full frontal and rear nudity, including that of both Tolyan and young Sanya.

    Profanity, while brief and in English subtitles, gets a heavy rating due to several uses of the "f" word. Some violence also occurs -- including a non-graphic shooting as well as some domestic abuse -- and obviously some burglaries occur as well.

    Beyond that and some thematic elements (life in Stalin controlled Russia, Tolyan being sent off to prison, Sanya seeing visions of his dead father), the remaining categories have little or no major objectionable material.

  • People onboard a train drink.
  • People, including Tolyan and Katya, have wine with dinner as well as what appears to be vodka, but later turns out to be water.
  • Tolyan and Katya have wine.
  • People drink vodka as Tolyan makes a toast.
  • Men at a bathhouse drink beer.
  • Some of Tolyan's new buddies drink beer.
  • A man's nose and hand are a little bloody after Tolyan punches him.
  • We see urine run from Sanya's leg and onto the floor/ground in separate scenes.
  • We see a urine stream as Tolyan relieves himself.
  • Obviously Tolyan has both for being a common thief, but also for stealing both Katya and Sanya's hearts (as well as being somewhat abusive to her, and kissing another woman), and perhaps posing as a soldier (we're never quite sure of that). He also cheats at a card game with other men.
  • Some local kids pick on and beat up Sanya.
  • Tolyan teaches Sanya that violence and intimidation are the keys to surviving in their world.
  • Tolyan uses and convinces Sanya to participate in a burglary (crawling through and then opening a locked window).
  • Some may not like hearing that Katya had an abortion (that we don't see, but from which she dies from peritonitis caused by it).
  • Tolyan briefly aims his gun at Katya when she surprises him.
  • Tolyan throws Katya across the room where she strikes her head. Sanya then grabs a knife and threatens Tolyan, who urges the boy to attack him (and picks up the knife and gives it back to him to try again), but nothing else happens.
  • Tolyan has to step out from a window ledge to the distant fire escape ladder to "rescue" Sanya.
  • Later, and reversing that, Tolyan holds Sanya by the back of his shirt/belt from the fire escape and swings the boy over to the window (several stories above the street) to climb through it.
  • Some soldiers chase Tolyan.
  • A character chases after another character (unbeknownst to the second) and finally shoots him in the back, presumably killing him.
  • Handgun: Carried by Tolyan and put under his pillow onboard the train (where he tells Sanya to watch it for him), aimed at Katya when she surprises him, and years later Sanya still has the gun.
  • Knife: Briefly used by Sanya to threaten Tolyan who's just thrown his mother across the room.
  • Handgun: Used to shoot a man in the back, presumably killing him.
  • Phrases (in English subtitles): "Idiot," "Pissed," "Bastard(s)," "Go to hell" and "Shut up."
  • Tolyan repeatedly spins a razor blade around inside his mouth in one scene.
  • Tolyan burglarizes people's homes.
  • Tolyan throws salt into some men's eyes after they catch him cheating at playing cards, and later at a soldier chasing him.
  • None.
  • A few scenes have just a tiny bit of suspenseful music in them.
  • None.
  • (In English subtitles): At least 2 "f" words (1 used sexually), 3 damns, 2 hells, 2 asses (1 used with "hole"), 1 crap, and 1 use of "G-damn" as exclamations.
  • Tolyan and Katya presumably have sex while standing in a train hallway. Dimly lit, we briefly see the two kissing as well as him raising up her dress and briefly moving between her legs.
  • Sanya awakens to hear subdued sexual sounds coming from the bed his mother and Tolyan are sharing. We see a little movement under the sheets and hear the bed slightly squeaking and her sounds, but they stop when Sanya believes he's trying to choke her (based on her "odd" sounds coming from under the sheets).
  • We briefly see Katya's bare breasts as Tolyan climbs on top of her and see her reaction as he begins having sex with her.
  • We briefly see Tolyan and Katya having sex again (with him on top and just a view from their shoulders up), and see movement and hear sounds.
  • We see many instances of male full frontal and rear nudity as Tolyan and Sanya (of whom we also see full frontal nudity) join other nude men "bathing" in a bathhouse. As Sanya looks around and then covers his genitals in shame (due to being smaller), Tolyan tells him that if he's brave, "Yours will grow too."
  • Explaining to a woman with him about Katya and Sanya, Tolyan says, "I f*cked one."
  • Tolyan smokes quite often during the movie, while a minor character smokes a few times as well.
  • As an adult narrator, Sanya comments that his father died many months before he was born. As a child, however, he occasionally has visions of his dead father as a soldier.
  • At first Sanya is resentful of Tolyan (trying to separate him and his mother from dancing), but eventually comes around to seeing the soldier/thief as a father figure.
  • Sanya sees that his mother is very sick (from a botched abortion that we don't see), and we later see workers finishing off her grave with only Sanya present, indicating that she's died.
  • Life in post WWII, Stalin controlled Russia.
  • Tolyan teaches Sanya that violence and intimidation are the keys to surviving in their world.
  • Katya dies from a botched abortion that then caused peritonitis.
  • Tolyan slightly smacks Sanya on the back of the head.
  • A group of local kids beat on Sanya who's lying on the ground.
  • Tolyan punches a man who was trying to discipline Sanya (for hitting other kids with a stick which we don't see), and then takes the man's bicycle and smashes it against a pole and jumps up and down on it (and threatens the man with further violence).
  • Tolyan has Sanya repeatedly hit and smack a larger boy who was picking on him.
  • Tolyan smacks Katya after she comments on his thievery.
  • Sanya briefly goes after another kid who tries to pick on him.
  • Tolyan throws Katya across the room where she strikes her head. Sanya then grabs a knife and threatens Tolyan, who urges the boy to attack him (and picks up the knife and gives it back to him to try again), but nothing else happens.
  • Tolyan throws salt into some men's eyes after they catch him cheating at playing cards.
  • Some soldiers chase Tolyan and finally pin him to the ground, but not before he throws salt into one of their eyes.
  • A Russian officer throws jewelry back at Katya after she attempts to bribe him with it.
  • A character chases after another character (unbeknownst to the second) and finally shoots him in the back, presumably killing him.

  • Reviewed September 2, 1998

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