Thief, The (Vor)

The Thief directed by Pavel Chukhrai is a deeply moving meditation on
family and fatherhood told from the point of view of Sanya (Misha Philipchuk)
the six year old son of the beautiful Katya (Yekaterina Rednikova). His father
having died of wounds shortly after the end of the Second World War, Sanya was
born in a field as his itinerant and apparently family-less and friendless
mother wandered in search of a place to settle. As the story opens in 1952,
Sanya and Katya are on a train, going they know not whither. Or at least if
Katya is going somewhere in particular the fact has not lodged in the memory of
the six year old Sanya. Into their compartment comes Tolya (Vladimir Mashkov), a
captain in the Red Army. He cuts a dashing figure and takes advantage of an
uproar in an adjoining car over someone claiming to have been robbed to begin
romancing the lonely Katya and ingratiating himself with her son.

It is only later that we learn that Tolya was, most probably, the thief. Like
Katya and Sanya, we are swept off our feet by this handsome, charming man who
seems to offer all that the former hopes for in a husband, the latter in a
father. Soon the three of them get off the train and settle down as a family in
a Russian tenement-style apartment house. Tolya tells the landlady that his
passport and pay have been held up at headquarters — you know how the Army
is — and he will settle with her in a few days.
He’s a soldier, she reasons, not a
deadbeat. Tolya tells Sanya to call him
but the boy, more cautious than his mother, will only call him Uncle Tolya.

Yet the two gradually draw closer together. When some neighbor boys beat
Sanya up, Tolya gives him lessons in self defense — not only by precept but
by example. When a large neighbor complains to him that the boy, on his advice,
has taken after the neighbor kids with a wooden plank, Tolya comes down and
beats him up, smashing his bicycle for good measure. The secret, he tells
Sanya, is to scare people. “If you
scare people, they respect you.” You
convince them that
ready to kill for this cigarette, or this ice cream — if they understand
that they will give you anything.”

But with Sanya he is also capable of gentleness. When the boy gets the whole
family in trouble with the other residents by leaving the water running and
flooding the apartment house, Tolya instructs him to bring him his military
belt, which he proceeds to wind around one fist while playing with a razor blade
in his mouth. Sanya is terrified and admiring at the same time. Satisfied that
he has made his impression, Tolya tells him, simply:
“I forgive
you.” He also tells him a secret, not
to be shared with anyone. He has a leopard tattooed on his shoulder to scare
people, but even more scary is the tattoo of Stalin on his breast. He tells
Sanya that Stalin is his father. When the people in the apartment toast Comrade
Stalin, he winks at him.

It is at this point where we learn that Tolya is a thief. To little Sanya the
meaning of the fact that they must gather their things, plus some unfamiliar
bundles, and leave their home in the middle of the night is still obscure, and
as the sad truth of what this seeming paragon of a patriarch really is slowly
dawns on us, it interferes not at all with his continuing instruction of Sanya
in the secrets of what it means to be a man. At one point, trying to be
protective of his unhappy mother, he grabs a kitchen knife and holds it out
towards Tolya.
kill you,” he says.

ahead,” says Tolya.
“You know the rules of the game. If
you pull a knife you have to use it.”
If he doesn’t, he threatens to hit
him. Sasha drops the knife and pees in his pants.

Once again, however, instead of turning violent with him, Tolya tells Sasha
that it’s all right. Everyone does it
once. He himself, he says, once pissed blood for three days after being beaten
up by men who kicked him in the kidneys and broke his ribs. But he
didn’t talk.
“Remember, you can pee in your pants a
hundred times,” he tells him. But in
the end you have to win.” Even when
such lessons in manhood are placed in the service of an apprenticeship in
thievery, Sanya takes his new occupation in his stride, refusing to let Tolya
think that he is as frightened as a little girl.

Soon, however, Tolya is apprehended by the authorities and hauled off to
prison. The most memorable scene of the movie comes as the prisoners are being
moved from the local prison to another one, or perhaps to exile in the Gulag.
None of them has seen his loved ones in a long time, and relatives come to watch
as they each in turn are made to run a gauntlet of barking police dogs to the
trucks that are to take them away while their relatives shout bits of news from
home. When Tolya runs the gauntlet, Katya shouts,
don’t leave
us!” But Sanya wriggles through the
crush of grown up bodies to run after the truck as it pulls away, calling out
after it, for the first time,

This is not the end of the picture. What comes afterwards is in many ways
even more moving in its depiction of the meaning of fatherhood and the nature of
the psychological attachment between fathers and sons. But part of the point,
surely, is that heroism — and in particular the kind of heroism which small
boys habitually confer upon their fathers — is not dependent upon being, in
the words of the sappy Private Ryan, “a good man.” At a level much more
elemental than that of even the most basic morality, boys must first learn to
become men by standing up to and earning the respect of the world in both war
and peace. It should not surprise us that intellectual fashion in the U.S. and
Britain requires that we turn to foreigners to remind us of the fact.

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