Cute little kids have long served honorably in Russian movies as winsome foils for adult heavies the innocent and resourceful versus the corrupt and indolent, the towheaded versus the toothless. In his feature debut, The Italian, Russian documentary and TV director Andrei Kravchuk uses the old setup to dramatize a new problem, that of his homeland's dismaying, interlocking orphanage and illegal-adoption businesses. The result is a picture half sweet, half bitter. Charles Dickens would approve, especially the parts where urchin kids create a society of artful dodgers, and a shady adoption broker known as Madam (Maria Kuznetsova) does business with a flourish Fagin might admire.
''The Italian'' is the name that envious orphanage buddies give 6-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov, an impressively natural kid actor surrounded by a cast of nonpros from real orphanages) because a rich Italian couple wants to adopt him. But Vanya isn't wowed. Instead, he sets out to track down his birth mother, a hero's quest that involves teaching himself to read his own hidden personnel file, escaping the institution, traveling unfamiliar roads, eluding capture, and, at times, literally rolling with the punches.
The boy is quick-witted and resilient. The adults are a post-Soviet stew of beaten-down, mind-their-own-business citizens. The hardships and setbacks are just grim enough to be effective without plunging the viewer into Russian despair.