Your first reward for seeing The Thief will be to learn a word of Russian. During the title credits, the word BOP almost covers the screen, but the film doesn't tell the story of Moscow's underground jazz scene. In Russian, a thief is a bop (pronounced more or less "vore," alas). That was a snappy note to start a powerfully dark film, more dirge than jazz.
Director/writer Pavel Chukhrai begins in the beginning, with the birth of his narrator, Sanya, in 1946, just after his father's death from wounds suffered in the war. One minute Sanya's pretty young widowed mother, Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova), is trudging down a muddy wasteland road; the next she's down in the goop, bringing Sanya forth into what is truly a vale of tears. As Sanya narrates, the film jumps forward six years, but Katya is still wandering aimlessly, only now she's on a packed cattle-car of a train, accompanied by her very wide-eyed son (young Misha Philipchuk, in a precociously soulful debut).
Katya seems to have cast her fate to the winds, or rails, as she and Sanya are traveling without any destination in mind. So when Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), a handsome young Red Army officer, shows up to claim the bunk above theirs, and then to claim them too, she offers little resistance. She's pretty; he's unattached. Why not? The kid is a bit of a nuisance, but in the Russia of Stalin's final years, having only a bit of a nuisance in your life really is as good as it gets.
There isn't much mystery about Tolyan and Katya getting together; they're the only attractive people on the train. It's how the relationship of Tolyan and Sanya, the boy, develops that gives the film its power. Sanya flips between wanting to kill Tolyan, or at least save his mother from his misunderstood embraces, and desperately hoping to learn from him how to be brutally strong, and thus survive this bleak life.
It's understandable why Tolyan would want to pitch the kid out the window; Sanya interferes with his lovemaking. But something, maybe the boy's almost fantastically wide eyes, partially wins the man over. He teaches him to strike back when bullied, preferably using brutal force, and to be willing to kill for a crust of bread or a dip of ice cream. Once the other guy knows you're willing to kill him, the soldier counsels, you'll seldom actually have to do it.
Sanya's eyes register that he understands Tolyan's logic, but that he's not strong enough to live by it. When the boy does threaten to kill Tolyan with a knife, the soldier bares his breast (and his tattoo of Stalin), and instructs him to do so. "If you take out a knife, you have to use it," he reasons. When the boy wets himself, instead, it was not certain if Tolyan would smack or scorn him. So it was pleasantly surprising when he comforted him, but without relenting on the law of the jungle. "You can piss yourself 100 times," he says. "As long as you fight in the end."
Mashkov's Tolyan is an almost infinitely fascinating character. Even when it turns out he's a mystery man, and the bop of the title, and that his criminal activities will ultimately degrade his little adopted family, he keeps a sort of integrity, reminding of Genet's dictum that in an evil society, the criminal is the only honest man. And it's easy to imagine Tolyan rationalizing away his thieving, seeing as how everything around them had been stolen by the Bolsheviks in the first place.
The boy's human weakness registers as deeply as Tolyan's brand of strength. Sanya's ambivalence about choosing between his unknown father (whose spirit pops up from time to time) and his potential real-life savior is so palpable he seems a sort of six-year-old Hamlet of the Steppes. Every decision he makes -- to steal or not to steal, to kill or not to kill -- is made as much under the sign of survival as of morality.
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Too bad this wasn't a romantic comedy. It would have been good to see these three characters beat the system. Instead, it, and the choices the characters make, place unbearable stress on them. Or on the boy and his mom, at least. Katya can't live the life that Tolyan has chosen. But she can't give him up, either.
Here the film does hit a wall. The characters' tragic circumstances are very well delineated, but not so Katya herself. In her helplessness and integrity, she could have been something like Giulietta Masina's great character in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, but she's underwritten, almost to the point of being a pretty cipher. So scenes that really should break your heart fall a bit short, as when the long but bumbling arm of Soviet law finally reaches the trio during their last getaway.
Still, for Tolyan and Sanya alone, The Thief is well worth a look. Throw in its rare and nicely modulated look at Russian domestic life under Stalin, with its communal apartments and their sad accordion parties, and particularly the brilliant scene that shows the Soviets' uniquely harrowing method of transferring prisoners from one facility to another (they have to run a gauntlet of snarling German shepherds, while loved ones stand at a distance and shout news from home), and you've got a film that earned its Academy Award nomination.
Directed by Pavel Chukhrai. With Ekaterina Rednikova, Misha Philipchuk and Vladimir Mashkov.