This almost forgotten crime drama set in the post-war Soviet Union has reached the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and “The Thief” or “The Thief” is a film that stands out in the filmography of the not overly famous Russian filmmaker Pavel Chuhkray. Much better known than Pavel was his father Grigorij, who in the fifties and sixties mostly made classic socialist war or partisan films (his most famous is “The Ballad of the Soldier”, which was also nominated for an Oscar). But “The Thief” was one of the most popular and successful Russian films of the 1990s. Čukraj, who is also a screenwriter, told the story from the perspective of the early six-year-old boy Sanja.
Homeless mother Katja (Ekaterina Rednikova), whose husband and Sanja’s father died in the last days of World War II, gave birth to a son somewhere along the road in 1946. Six years later, mother and son travel by train among many other nameless and equally miserable people, and there the charming, gallant and sweet-spoken Toljan (Vladimir Mashkov) will sneak into their lives. A man in a Red Army officer uniform will quickly seduce a young woman who will be happy to have found someone to take care of her and her son. Soon he will place them in an apartment in a dilapidated building and it will seem that the worries for this family are over. But it turns out that Toljan is actually a fraud and a thief, a cunning resourceful man who manages brilliantly in a situation in which the country finds itself and in which there are countless hungry, weak and poor.
But when he realizes what it’s about, it will be too late for Katja. She is already completely in love with the alpha male who provided her and her son with such a life and a roof over their heads. No matter how thief he is, she can’t do without him and will follow him like that in wanderings from town to town, from theft to theft. When it comes to the boy, the situation is somewhat different. Although initially distrustful, Sanja will soon find a father figure in a dominant, strict, but also cruel type, towards whom she will feel fear, respect and love at the same time. Čukraj built a great story because the criminal schemes in which Toljan will involve his new family are slowly becoming clearer, but at the same time the relations between the three of them are deepening and becoming more and more complicated.
Especially the relationship between Toljan and the boy who at first openly despises this guy, considers him a fraud and is convinced that his real father will return one day. But at the same time, Sanja seems to be crying out for his love, attention and trying to please her surrogate father, and this relationship will haunt him for the rest of his life and the emotional and shocking ending of the film. This whole film is actually shocking, and it brilliantly portrays the humanitarian and human catastrophe that reigned in the post-war Soviet Union. Hunger, poverty, misery, families left without loved ones in a war that took millions and millions. And Stalin as the father of the nation who promises prosperity to the people, but instead of a quality life, there are Siberia, gulags and similar charms.
There is also some symbolism in this film, because Toljan can be seen as a kind of personification of Stalin. This seemingly powerful, corpulent and brave guy who promises hills and valleys, offers people hope, and is in fact an unscrupulous and heartless thief who is exclusively interested in his well-being. The betrayal of those closest to him and the people who believe in him is nothing to him, but once these people understand who it is and become aware of everything, they can’t help themselves. They managed to convince themselves that he was their savior, that without him they were helpless and that he, like some Deus ex-machina, would suddenly make them feel better. Once it becomes clear what it is about, as will be the case in the great final scene of “The Thief”, it is usually too late, and the illusions have already dissipated. Rating 8/10.
MORE MOVIE REVIEWS: BAD ROADS (2020, UKR) Movie review, plot, trailer, rating