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'Thief': Powerful Story and Allegory

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Thief
Vladimir Mashkov, Misha Philipchuk and Ekaterina Rednikova in "The Thief." (Stratosphere Entertainment)

Pavel Chukhrai
Vladimir Mashkov;
Ekaterina Rednikov;
Misha Philipchuk;
Amalia Mordvinova;
Lidiya Savchenko
Running Time:
1 hour, 30 minutes
For partial nudity, discreet sexual encounters and some profanity
"The Thief" is one of those metaphor-driven movies, promising an inevitable epiphany in which its veiled meaning suddenly hits you like a proverbial ton of bricks.

Not that it's heavy-handed, but it's not exactly subtle either. A 1997 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, "The Thief" is on the one hand a carefully observed, beautifully acted and moving evocation of life for a World War II Russian war-widow and her young son, and their encounter with a charismatic petty thief. But it is also a blunt and powerful allegory of the motherland herself and the conflicted emotional state of a nation under a harshly paternalistic Joseph Stalin.

Told from the point of view of a 6-year-old boy (the adorable Misha Philipchuk), the literal story revolves around Sanya and his mother Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) and the handsome stranger they meet on a train in 1952. Dressed in the dashing uniform of a soldier, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) immediately catches Katya's eye and-after a feverish coupling on the platform between jostling train cars-the two decide to cast their lot with each other.

Masquerading as husband and wife in order to get a better shot at a communal apartment, Katya and Tolyan soon settle in to what looks like the beginning of financial prosperity, with their apparently cozy domesticity shattered by increasingly frequent bouts of spousal abuse and frighteningly stern child-rearing. Furthermore, it rapidly becomes apparent that Tolyan's cash flow comes not from any military paycheck but from the five-finger discount he gives himself at the market and in his neighbors' apartments.

Around this time is when the self-proclaimed "Daddy" removes his shirt to reveal the tattoo of Stalin on his chest to little Sanya (just in case there were any lingering doubts as to whom the criminal represents in this morality play). Although he badgers the boy cruelly and enlists his aid in the commission of dangerous robberies, Tolyan does demonstrate a genuine concern for his foster son's well-being. The two begin to develop a familial relationship of sorts, with a bond forged not only out of respect, but fear.

What happens next is history, both literally and figuratively.

Just as Stalin's abusive treatment of his people fostered resentment and ultimate rejection, we all know this is a story that cannot end well. Despite the fact that the knowledge of 20th-century world events may ultimately foreshadow "The Thief's" bitter and hollow conclusion, director and writer Pavel Chukhrai's adept narrative balances the personal story with the Larger Issues to keep it from becoming a swollen diatribe against a fallen tyrant.

That's always the danger of obvious symbolism-that the parallel story may grow too large and topple its fragile underpinnings. Here, the tragic story of Stalin and Mother Russia measurably amplifies the imaginative power of "The Thief" without overwhelming what is essentially the haunting chronicle of a boy and the father who betrayed him.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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