Boris Gindis, Ph.D. 
Article Title
Italianetz: A Message That Hurts 
Posted Date

This movie reminds me of a Russian “matreshka” (a nested doll) -- a Christmas-like happy-end story intertwined with Soviet-style propaganda, a sentimental fairy tale mixed with pieces of rough Russian reality. And like the bright colors and curvy shape that connect all elements of a matreshka, there is the image of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy named Vanya to glue all the pieces together and to focus our attention to the movie for its 99 minutes length.

The plot is simple. Six-year-old Vanya lives in a Russian orphanage. He is about to be adopted by a couple from Italy – to become an Italian or Italianetz in Russian. So far, everything is real: international adoption is a fact of everyday life in Russia – since 1992, nearly 60,000 Russian orphans have been adopted in the US alone, about half of all children adopted abroad from Russia. From this point on, however, the fairy tale begins: Vanya decides to find his biological mother and stay in his motherland. Vanya goes through unbelievable adventures – all against the background of almost documentary quality realities of contemporary Russian life – and finally reaches his goal. In the back of your mind you understand all this is unreal: a 6-year-old orphanage-raised child is not capable of such plans and deeds. But the wonder of art forces you to believe in what you see on the screen.

Indeed, this is cinematography at its best: an authentic and intriguing screenplay by Andrey Romanov, the sophisticated work of cameraman Alexander Burov, and the fine direction of Andrey Kravchuk. And, most of all, the acting: Kolya Spiridonov in the role of Vanya reaches a new height of child performance in cinema. Like any genuine piece of art, this movie carries a message (or many messages). So, what is the message of Italianate? As matreshkas of different sizes and colors carry different images, the movie brings various meanings to diverse audiences.

In the US, this film will be watched with trepidation and excitement by a special group of moviegoers – those who contemplate or have completed adoption from overseas orphanages, particularly from Russia. For them the story of little Vanya will be a trigger for their own anxieties, expectations, and memories. Some will identify with what they see in the movie, some will be scared and upset by the heart-breaking harsh reality of Russian orphanages, but all will be mesmerized by the likeable image of the main hero. But how many will be able to look at the movie through the eyes of those to whom this show is primarily addressed: the Russian viewers?

In Russia, international adoption is a matter of bitter controversy. Amongst Russian politicians and population at large there is rather wide opposition to “letting children go.” This opposition stems mostly from wounded pride and offended nationalistic feelings rather than any logic or humanitarian values. The essence of this attitude is forcefully expressed by a security guard at the orphanage for infants where Vanya arrives to discover the whereabouts of his mother. The old man says, with intense passion: “We sell children for dollars. The country is falling apart.” Responding to these sentiments and in fact, reinforcing them through the power of art, the movie sends this message to the Russian audience: “The beautiful, smart, and compassionate Russian children are being taken away by foreigners with the help of greedy re-sellers, and society tolerates this state of affairs.”

The evil force standing between Vanya and his dream of finding his mother is a ‘madam,’ – as the adoption facilitator (a middleman between prospective adoptive parents and a child) is known among the children in that orphanage. This middle-aged, energetic, and at times ruthless woman (convincingly depicted by famed Russian actress Maria Kuznetsova) with a name suspicious to the Russian ear, Zhanna Arkadievna (very likely Jewish), is the only totally negative character in the movie. For her an adoption is a financial deal, and she seems concerned only about money. What is amazing to anyone familiar with the legal process of international adoption, “madam” (the word carries an acid connotation in the context of Russian culture) does not violate any Russian laws: everything she does is legal and approved procedure (except, perhaps, for the bribes she openly offers to police officers, but that is such a ‘normal’ thing in modern-day Russia that it is not perceived as a deviation from everyday routine). And still, she exemplifies the dark forces that take a Russian child from his mother(land).

It is interesting (and the movie is honest about this) that everyone in Vanya’s surroundings understands adoption abroad means an escape from the gloomy and desperate life to which orphans doomed in Russia. A chronically drunk director of the orphanage tells Vanya that misery now and jail in the future await him if he stays in his motherland; the leader of a youth gang “instructs” Vanya with a belt, whipping him mercilessly because he thinks that foreigners' failure to adopt Vanya may close this route for other children; all orphanage inmates, from the youngest to the oldest, envy Vanya and without hesitation would take his spot (and his close friend actually does). Ironically, the only real driving force for positive change in the fate of orphans is “madam” – she is the one who arranges initial meetings with prospective adoptive parents and manages the process of adoption. But the adoption facilitator is the only character who is painted in definitely dark colors.

While Vanya is just a phantom (a symbol of the treasure taken away from Russia), the other characters in the movie are very believable and are neither positive nor negative. The film's makers do not pass moral judgment on any character (but “madam”), treating episodes of child prostitution, lawbreaking behavior, and physical abuse as a matter of life. Again, the only character who gets no understanding or objectivity from the filmmakers is Zhanna Arkadievena – what a pity! This is a perfect example of misplaced anger: instead of pointing at society and people neglecting their most vulnerable and valuable asset – children – the creators of the film point at an adoption broker who is making money – yes, indeed – but at the same time helping children and providing them with what society denies them: security, love, and hope. Although not a sympathetic person by all means, objectively Zhanna Arkadievena is orphanage residents’ only hope!

The biggest bewilderment promoted by the movie – almost in proportion to Soviet era propaganda – is Vanya’s likable image. The movie tells us that life in an orphanage has not affected Vanya – he is smart, compassionate, brave, and goal-directed, unusually mature for his age. Any nation in the world would be proud to have him as its citizen. According to Russian nationalistic politicians, that is what Russia gives away to the foreigners! This is what Italy (USA, Germany, you name it) buys for its liras (dollars, marks), robbing Russia of its real treasure, symbolized by Vanya.

Let's get real: a child who is reared in an orphanage simply cannot be like Vanya. Life in an orphanage is damaging to any child. Those families who have adopted from abroad have learned this the hard way. They have brought home children with developmental delays, lack of age-appropriate skills of daily living, often physically handicapped and sick, and almost always with emotional scars that take years to heal. American adoptive families apply enormous resources: time, money, patience, and efforts in remediating and rehabilitating these children. Most international adoptees are flourishing in their new families only through the extraordinary scaffold provided by their adoptive families.

The movie, with the powerful force of real artistry, plays into the hands of those ideology-driven nationalists for whom the “state-idea” is more important than the life of a particular child. The message that the movie sends to its viewers in Russia hurts thousands of orphans and those who work for their release into a better life. International adoption is not a remedy for the problem of unwanted children in Russia, but it is a solution for individual children – to deny them such a chance in the name of a nationalistic idea is plain cruelty.

Dr. Boris Gindis is a child psychologist specializing in psycho-educational issues of older internationally adopted children. He is chief psychologist at the Center for Cognitive-Developmental Assessment and Remediation, the lead instructor at Bgcenter Online School, the author of many publications on international adoption issues and frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.
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