In 1960, Griggori Chukhrai won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes for Ballad Of A Soldier, a touching story of everyday heroism and simple people that espoused almost to perfection the Soviet cinematic creed of socialist realism. Almost 40 years later, his son Pavel has adopted his father's visual style to tell a very different tale of a soldier at large in those post-war days , which not only won awards at Venice, but also landed an Oscar nomination.
Six-year-old Sanya (Philipchuk) and his mother, Katya (Rednikova) have struggled since his father was killed in the war. So when she is seduced on a cross-country train by handsome officer Tolyan (Mashkov), they readily accept his offer of the "good life". It comes at a price, however, as Tolyan is really only a thief in disguise who no sooner gains the confidence of his neighbours than he fleeces them and moves on to the next isolated town.
Although the composition recalls a bygone era, the themes of The Thief could not be more contemporary. This is an allegory of Yeltsin's Russia couched in communist terms, as Tolyan rules the roost with a mix of benevolence and authority that leaves the boy unsure whether to respect or resent him.
Chukhrai recreates the cramped conditions of the boarding houses and the forced bonhomie of their disparate residents with considerable care and fondness, while still suggesting that the Russians have always been to ready to trust those with power.
Mashkov (who has a look of Antonio Banderas about him) slips between charm and ruthlessness with consummate skill, while Rednikova's decline is as credible as it is inevitable. But stealing the show is the eight-year-old Philipchuk, whose wide eyes register awe, puzzlement and misery with a conviction not seen since Salvatore Cascio in Cinema Paradiso.