1997, NR, 97 min. Directed by Pavel Chukhrai. Starring Vladimir Mashkov, Eketerina Rednikova, Misha Philipchuk.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 28, 1998
The theme explored in the Oscar-nominated Russian film The Thief is a familiar one in American film lore: an impressionable young boy's/young man's fear and awe of a scoundrel father figure. (Think Hud, for example.) Here, the youngster is Sanya (Philipchuk), a six-year-old Russian boy in Stalinist Russia who longs for a masculine presence in his life so much that the silent apparition of his biological father, a soldier killed in World War II, frequently comforts him when he is lonely or troubled. The surrogate paterfamilias is the roguish, handsome Tolyan (Mashkov), who sweeps Sanya's naïve mother (Rednikova) off her feet -- both literally and figuratively -- only to make her and her son unwilling accomplices in a life of crime. For Sanya, the allure of a father figure is overwhelming, despite the cruelty and abuse Tolyan inflicts on Sanya and his mother. The scene in which Tolyan and Sanya connect for the first time is a powerful one: Fascinated by Tolyan's body, Sanya gingerly squeezes the man's biceps upon Tolyan's invitation to do so and then slowly traces the outline of a faded tattoo on a shoulder blade. Enraptured by the experience, Sanya (terrifically played by Philipchuk) is able finally to touch his “father”, a flesh-and-blood being who is more than just a mute ghost. It is also a telling moment for Tolyan, who demonstrates for the first time a hint of humanity otherwise obscured by a tough exterior. The young boy's fascination soon evolves into an emotional dependency, made all the more treacherous by the duplicitous Tolyan's insistence that Sanya call him “Daddy” for reasons wholly unrelated to any paternal bonding. Of course, as you might guess, the ultimate consequence of the relationship forged between the two is nothing short of tragic. On an allegorical level, one can read The Thief as a commentary on the reign of Joseph Stalin, whose constant presence is felt in the film. (Tolyan has another tattoo -- one of the Communist despot -- on his chest, and he confides in Sanya the “secret” that he is the son of Stalin.) The ruthless, self-serving manner in which Tolyan uses others is not too different, albeit on a different scale, from the way that Stalin betrayed and maligned a country that looked up to him as its father. On whatever level viewed, The Thief is an experience that is often profound and seldom contrived.