the italian

(Sony Pictures Classics)

notes on a scandal

(Fox Searchlight)

Lovely among film's powers, yet relatively unsung, is its relationto children--not children in the audience but those on screen.Something about performing before a camera comforts a child'snatural instinct to pretend. Of course all children play andpretend in one way or another, but the wonder is how, withoutknowledge and often without ambition, a child will behave on amovie set like a pro. This isn't even necessarily true of thosechildren whose parents want them to be film stars. An extraordinaryperformance can come from a child without any subsequent career,such as the little girl in La Maternelle (1932). The viewer is leftwondering what happened to such a child in later life. Did sheremember, as she wrapped groceries or did appendectomies, or laysodden in a bar, that she had once moved thousands--in fact, stillmoves them?

What about Kolya Spiridonov? This six-year-old boy plays the leadingrole, the mainstay role, in a new Russian film called The Italian.Kolya has already been in several other films (unseen here), butthere is no child-star quality about him. How did he create thethoughtful, oddly private performance that he gives in The Italian?Martin Ritt once told me, when I asked him how he got goodperformances from the children in Conrack, that it was a director'sjob to woo and win the confidence of child actors. Andrei Kravchukdirected The Italian; did he, in Ritt's sense, woo and win Kolya?Very possibly, but does that really account for the relative depthof this child's acting? Why did he want to do it well? Pleasing hisparents and massaging his ego and being praised, yes, but where didhe find the sheer understanding? It seems fitting to fantasize: thecamera speaks a secret attractive language to certain children whocomprehend and respond. If so, it is a conversation that the cameraand the child can keep secret from all the grown-ups around.

That collaboration begins in The Italian in a Russian orphan asylum.The adoption of Russian orphans by foreigners is now, as in someother countries, a thriving business. To this provincial orphanagecome an amiable Italian couple, and out of all the youngstersoffered they choose six-year-old Vanya (played by Kolya). When wemeet him, we feel that we would do the same. The adoption money issettled, but because of legal procedures and paperwork, it will betwo months before the couple can have him. The film takes place inthose two months, during which all the other children in the asylumcall Vanya "the Italian."

But all is not joyous anticipation with him. He now has questionsabout who he is, who his mother is, and he knows he will never beable to find out after he leaves. His questions are sadly deepenedwhen he meets a distraught young woman who left her child in theasylum a few years ago and now wants only to see him. She fails;and there is a grim result to her frustrated search, which helps toheighten Vanya's need to find his mother. He has a clue, and heescapes from the asylum to follow it up, becoming a kind ofDickensian waif out in the twenty-first-century world. The ending,too, is Dickensian.

Andrei Kravchuk here makes his feature-directing debut and showsthat there is no reason not to have bright hopes for him. Besideshis work with Vanya- Kolya, he uses the numerous other youngstersin the asylum like an unobtrusive choreographer, and he paints inall the film's necessary touches simply. For instance, one plotstrand concerns a teenage hooker, apparently the daughter or sisterof the asylum janitor, who teaches Kolya how to read. Kravchuk doesnothing to underscore the misery of the girl's life; it is simplysupplied. A word, too, about the crystalline cinematography ofAlexander Burov, who has done several films with the highlyesteemed Alexander Sokurov. Burov's camera helps to keep the filmwell this side of arrant tear-jerking.

Notes on Notes on a Scandal. Right along with Venus comes anotherfilm that leans on the English theater. The director of Notes,Richard Eyre, was for ten years the head of the Royal NationalTheatre. He is richly experienced in film, too--Iris, for example.Judi Dench, who played Iris, is here again with Eyre. Bill Nighy,now visiting Broadway, is also in the film, flavoring it withcharacter. Cate Blanchett, who is Australian in fact but is also atheater figure in England, is abundantly present. The screenplay,adapted from a novel by Zoe Heller, is by the noted Englishplaywright Patrick Marber.

Put them all together and the result is bound to be what it is:crisp, subtly inflected, exquisitely timed, and tinged with aquality that is almost an English hallmark--emotion that is oftenconveyed in a sort of confidence, as if we were privileged to beshown so much feeling.

The polish and precision of the acting and directing, along with theburnished dialogue, are what keep this film alive. The story as suchis predictable fairly soon; but we are so pleased to be in suchgood professional company that it doesn't greatly matter. Denchplays a history teacher in a middle school who is a closet lesbian.Blanchett is an art teacher with flowing blonde locks, who floatssomewhat provocatively among a lot of adolescent boys. Nighy is herhusband, patient and affectionate and the father of their twochildren, one of whom is developmentally disabled. This is asomewhat heavy stroke to make Blanchett sympathetic despite thetrouble she gets into.

That trouble is an affair that Blanchett finds herself in--asurprise to her because it is with a fifteen-year-old student. Heis a boy of some brightness and drawing talent, which, forBlanchett, partly licenses her doings with him. Dench discovers theaffair and is not only shocked but jealous. Much of the first partof the film gives us Dench's thoughts on the sound track, alwaysphrased with bite and discomfiting insight. Not quite intentionally,Dench becomes Blanchett's confidante, which helps to producecomplications.

Dench's performance is exactly what we would expect, which is meantas a high compliment. Nighy is fine, though his role doesn't quitemake the most of him. The welcome surprise is Blanchett. Her pastwork has usually seemed more intelligent than achieved, wellplanned but just satisfactorily executed. Here she breaks throughinto vibrant colors that are strong, even occasionally frightening.We can guess that the skilled Richard Eyre was of considerable helpto her. (By the way, as with Penelope Cruz in Volver, there is ashot of Blanchett on the toilet. Is this becoming a signet offemale stardom?)

Philip Glass wrote the score. It doesn't matter.

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