The Thief

(Vor, Pavel Chukhrai, Russia, 1997)


The playing out of grand historical and social crises within the space of private, family life has an almost vicious intensity in some Russian films. Betrayal runs rampant; fathers (or father-figures) and their sons are locked together in mutual suspicion and hatred; and women are the victims of every conceivable sort of psychological manipulation and violent abuse.

As movies such as Andrei Konchalovsky's underrated The Inner Circle (1991) have vividly suggested, it is as if the spectre of Stalin – evil father incarnate – managed to poison, for several generations of Russian citizens, every innocent stirring of love and faithfulness within the domestic sphere. All that was left, as a testament to the era, was a tragic, Dostoyevskian parade of absent parents, haunted children, furtive encounters and shattered dreams.

The Thief works over, from a historic distance, this melancholic terrain. Beginning in 1952, the story follows the impoverished wanderings of Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) and her little son Sanya (Misha Philipchuk). Katya falls for Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), a dashing chap in a soldier's uniform, but mysteriously lacking his official papers. Gradually we intuit the extent of Tolyan's shady dealings.

For Katya, the encounter with this man inaugurates an intensely erotic and masochistic enslavement – and the film does not shirk from indicating how hopelessly caught she is by her own emotions. For Sanya, the attachment is no less desperate: Tolyan replaces, in his feverish imagination, the lost father he has never known and forever romanticised.

Although Sanya outdoes the child in Kolya (Jan Sverák, 1996) for cuteness and tenacity, The Thief is not an uplifting film. It is a relentless journey into despair, trauma and social fragmentation. Tolyan as the 'bad father' manages to commit every crime an evil patriarch can possibly commit – and the tale moves inexorably towards the primal confrontation between an older Sanya and his renegade mentor.

We scarcely see any Russian films in Western arthouses these days, and so The Thief may seem more outstanding and refreshing than it really is. Writer-director Pavel Chukhrai is not in the class of such modern Russian masters as Gleb Panfilov (The Theme, 1979) or Alexander Sokurov (Mother and Son, 1996). Nonetheless, he has a fine sense of classical control over his material, calmly bringing forth the psychological nuances and larger, historic ironies of this sad story.

© Adrian Martin June 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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