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Tolyan is the sort of man who’d make Ayn Rand swoon: Confident, decisive, self-sufficient, pitiless, and enough of a free-marketeer to qualify as a Washington Post Op-Ed columnist. There are only two small complications: Tolyan is the title character in writer-director Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief, and he’s living the Objectivist ideal in Stalinist Russia.
Tolyan (top Russian star Vladimir Mashkov) looks dashing in his Soviet army officer’s uniform when he meets beautiful young widow Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) and her 6-year-old son Sanya (intense Misha Philipchuk) on a train. The mother and son are headed no place in particular, and so are entirely willing to pose as Tolyan’s family upon their arrival in a provincial city. Katya, whose husband died before her son was born, enjoys her new domesticity, although Sanya is jealous of her attentions to the man he’s been told to call Dad. (The boy finds the couple’s sex life particularly alarming.) After Sanya is beaten by local bullies, Tolyan teaches the boy lessons in self-defense that are almost as scary as the original attack.
Then one day the charming Tolyan throws a party for his fellow residents of their communal apartment, leads a toast to Stalin, and gives everyone tickets to the circus. Tolyan slips out while the others watch the show, and Katya follows, expecting to find her man with another woman. Instead, she discovers Tolyan looting the apartment. “Get the boy,” he tells her. “We’ve got a train to catch.”
Thus begins Katya’s life as an accomplice, and Sanya, too, is soon recruited to assist Tolyan’s burglaries. The three travel from town to town, robbing, fleeing, and ducking the military police who sometimes ask to inspect the documents of uniformed men at train stations. Katya tries to break away, but she loves Tolyan, and he in his way is remarkably loyal to her and Sanya. The boy is awed by his surrogate father but also intimidated by him. Periodically, his father’s ghost appears to Sanya to remind him that Tolyan is not his real parent.
Tolyan’s streak can only last so long, and when it concludes the trio’s improvised family must also end. The last two times Sanya sees Tolyan the first of them an astonishingly vivid evocation of Stalinist authoritarianism the man is no longer the robust, autonomous figure he once was. To Sanya, though, the defeated Tolyan is more human, more the sort of person he can imagine accepting as his stepfather.
Thanks in no small part to Vladimir Klimov’s natural-light cinematography, The Thief is strongly evocative of the postwar Soviet Union, visualized as a place of browns and grays, shadowy interiors and limpid sunlight. (The exception is a sojourn in semi-tropical Odessa, once the Soviet Union’s Hollywood.) While Chukhrai’s scenario is as universal as any tale of a brutal but well-meaning stepfather, it’s also very specific. The film is set in 1952, the year before the death of the man whose face Tolyan has tattooed on his chest: Joseph Stalin.
The director’s father, Grigori Chukhrai, made the 1959 film Ballad of a Soldier, a small triumph of humanism within the artistic straitjacket of socialist realism. Times have changed, but The Thief is similarly circumspect. It’s the story of how a boy or a country can be dominated by a ruthless but charismatic man. In just a few years, Sanya first fears, then loves, and finally comes to hate the brutal man who dominated him. For the Soviet Union, the process took a lot longer.
Most of the action in Rossini unfolds in the restaurant that gives the film its name, but the movie is not about food or the food business. The regulars seem to drink more than they eat at Rossini, an upscale Italian eatery in Munich, and their minds seldom wander from the art film’s two foremost obsessions: sex and filmmaking. That doesn’t mean, however, that Rossini is an art film.
In a sense, this is the story of a romantic triangle: Both director Uhu (Goetz George) and producer Oskar (Heiner Lauterbach) are trying to seduce novelist Jakob (Joachim Krol), who has vowed that his bestseller Lorelei will never be made into a movie. Although the reclusive Jakob has spread the word that he dwells in isolation in the Scottish Highlands, he actually lives within bicycling distance of the restaurant, where he dines every night in a private room. Uhu and Oskar are among the few people whom Jakob receives there, and they hope to use their connection to win the rights to his book.
Director Helmut Dietl and co-writer Patrick Suskind’s script also includes several entanglements that are more literally erotic. While Uhu contemplates the end of his fourth marriage, Jakob frequents Rossini because of a crush on waitress Serafina (Martina Gedeck). Valerie (Gudrun Landgrebe) is planning her 40th birthday party (at Rossini, of course) as the occasion to decide between her two lovers, Oskar and the poet Bodo (Jan Josef Liefers). And restaurant owner Paolo (Mario Adorf), a compulsive philanderer, unwittingly sets the stage for chaos when he invites striking children’s-theater actress Snow White (Veronica Ferres) to dinner. A lot less innocent than she might seem, Snow White is set on winning the lead in the film of Lorelei, even if she has to dump her girlfriend Zillie (Meret Becker) to do it. (This summary doesn’t even include the doctor with designs on Valerie and the tabloid journalist with plans for Jakob.)
Dietl and Suskind attempt here to cross the bedroom farce with the comedy of ideas a combination that recalls such Tom Stoppard plays as Travesties. It’s a chance for them to have some fun with their own careers Dietl is a veteran director, while Suskind wrote the international sensation Perfume as well as with the state of contemporary German romanticism. (Uhu declares that his film will be “tragic, Faustian, German!”) This aspect of the comedy may explain Rossini’s commercial success at home, but it doesn’t translate particularly well. Still, you needn’t be German to appreciate the portrait of the officious yet gullible bankers who plan to shut down the production of Lorelei until they’re presented with copies of the novel autographed to their wives, or to find the scripters’s depiction of Jakob agreeably self-mocking: “It don’t want to experience anything,” he protests. “I’m a writer!”
Rossini was shot on an elaborate set, and its wide-screen compositions and meticulously choreographed long takes seem to be among its principal virtues. (I say “seem” because I saw the film on projected video, which blunted its visual impact.) The approach recalls Coppola’s deliriously contrived One From the Heart, which is not a bad precedent to follow. Whereas that film aimed to create mythic Americana, however, this one targets the German taste for folkloric bombast. Those who are uninterested in such matters may find the result somewhat heavier than the intellectual souffle Dietl and Suskind clearly intended to make.