The Thief

The Thief (1997)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

I guess the thing that surprised me the most about "The Thief" was the fact that this is a Russian movie, distributed in the US by a Hollywood major. Acclaimed with Academy Award nominations and other awards, the film has now been released on DVD through Columbia TriStar Home Video. "The Thief" is a drama in the traditional "Russian" style with a touching storyline and a very ‘dry’, naturalistic visual style. Most strikingly however, it is a film without your typical Hollywood Happy Ending and it is a film that is filled with careful parables about the life in Russia after World War II. Opening with a woman giving birth to a child in the middle of a snow covered field right after the end of World War II establishes the tone of the film from the get go. Six years later the mother, Katja (Ekaterina Rednikova) and her son Sanja (Misha Phillipchuk) travel on a train where they meet Toljan (Vladimir Mashkov), a man dressed in an army uniform. Toljan is good looking, strong and healthy, attributes in a time of poverty that attract the mother, as they are all indices for a wealthy background in times of post-war hardship and poverty.

She falls in love with Toljan, seeking protection and shelter for herself and her fatherless child, and soon the three live together as a family.

Sanja has certain problems with his new father figure however. Having recurring visions of his true father, the boy is intrigued and attracted by the strong soldier, yet at the same time can never get over an uneasy mixture of fear and respect for the rough man.

Due to his outgoing nature and handsome charm, Toljan is popular with everyone and it soon turns out that he is using this asset to make a living. While people trust him blindly, he robs and burgles them and then quickly escapes to put his abilities to use somewhere else. Before they know it, Katja and Sanja are part of this never-ending circle of crime and it seems as if Toljan always manages to escape and elude officials, identity checks and officials. The nomadic lifestyle wears on the family however and soon Katja can’t keep up with it any longer. When Toljan finally uses Sanja for his dirty deeds, Katja decides to leave him, despite all the hardship she will undoubtedly face.

"The Thief" ties in seamlessly with traditional Russian cinema. Working with parables and symbolisms a lot, the film never gets obtrusive however. Poignant and simple, the film gets his message across very well. It quickly becomes evident that Toljan stands for Stalin who uses his charm to mislead people and finally robs them of what little they have left. Shown through the eyes of Sanja, the 6-year old boy, this is how people must have looked at Stalin at a time when they needed a strong leader the most, as a demagogue, liar and thief, who uses his personality and charisma to get away with murder. The film is touching, yet never obtrusive, and some of the most powerful scenes appear when you least expect them. Especially the ending is stunning, when Toljan ultimately shows his true colors. It is a memorable moment that brings the film and the story full circle.

The feel and certain other aspects of "The Thief", actually remind of Grigori Chukhraj’s 1959 film, "Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier)" at times. Not only do the opening and closing shots of both films have the same look and framing, but it almost feels as if they tell the story of related characters. Interesting associations with this and other Soviet films of the early 60s can be found throughout, but surprisingly, the film also nicely shows how perceptions among filmmakers have changed in Russia. In the past, the most emotionally invoking scenes of like-minded films were located in busy train stations. Many people are wistfully awaiting hope through arriving loved ones, or try to find a new, better life in the distance. While featuring such scenes on the side, we see one of the most powerful scenes of "The Thief", when Toljan is transferred to a prison in Siberia and Sanja is calling out to him as "Father" for the first time. All of a sudden prison guards and snarling dogs become the emotional climax of the film amidst the poverty and hopelessness of the people around.

The style of the film is beautiful, albeit generally very different from the typical American feel. It doesn’t glorify people or actions in any way, has a generally subdued note and even Sanja is so totally different from Western children. Lively, easily impressible and wide-eyed he roams the film, but he is noticeably obedient and respectful when adults enter the picture. It is the anti-thesis of our spoiled Western culture and the results of our anti-authoritarian education we get to see and feel every day.

The disc Columbia TriStar Home Video has delivered here is well produced, featurign a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> transfer. The image quality is good throughout, although some flaws and grain in the film print used are noticeable. This however is in all probability a result of the budget restraints the film’s original production faced rather than a lack of attention in the creation of the DVD. The transfer is generally clean and the picture is sharp and well defined. The compression has been carefully done, although some dot crawl and ringing is evident throughout the film. The DVD presents "The Thief" in it original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio and contains a monaural Russian soundtrack. The soundtrack, too, is well produced, although there are obvious limitations that come with mono soundtracks. English, French and Spanish subtitles can be selected from the main menu and the disc automatically defaults to English subtitles upon insertion.

"The Thief" is a great film and a must-see for lovers of foreign movies. It is touching, and has a poetic quality at times that is very unique. The harsh lighting schemes in the film amplify the harshness of the lives we see as part of the story, and warmth comes at a price. All too easily we forget how life looks like in other parts of the world, and how spoiled we are in our own materialistic shells. While this film tells the story of a culture after the Second World War, there is still enough hardship and hopelessness around this world that is conveniently overlooked.

Columbia TriStar is to be lauded for bringing this film to the US and even more so to make it accessible to film lovers on DVD now.