Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Pavel Chukhrai's The Thief is a poignant, painful coming-of-age story set in early-Cold War Russia.
Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova), recently widowed by the war, gives birth in a freshly-plowed field to a boy named Sanya. Six years later, Sanya (Misha Philipchuk) and his mother, aboard a crowded train, encounter the handsome soldier, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov). Tolyan seduces Katya and quickly they decide to pose as a family to secure housing in a small village. Katya, against her better judgment, begins to fall in love with Tolyan while Sanya, jealous at first, soon begins to look up to the charismatic Tolyan as a father figure.
Katya discovers that Tolyan is, in fact, a career criminal who drifts from town to town burglarizing those he befriends. Passionately in love, she is torn. On the other hand, the fatherless Sanya, who is shown stern paternal affection by Tolyan, is all too happy to be recruited into these schemes. When Tolyan is captured and sent to the gulag, Sanya chases after the transport vehicle, shouting plaintively “Don’t leave us alone!” and, for the first time, calling him, “Daddy.”
Five years later, Sanya has been orphaned, his mother dead from complications of an operation. The adolescent boy happens upon a prematurely-aged Tolyan. Their reunion yields bitter results.
In this odd film, both sweeping and intimate, Sanya (represented both as a little boy and an adult voiceover narrator) is deflowered by the dishonesty and treachery of the title character, Tolyan, a man who steals from those who trust him. Sanya’s rueful tale, of course, symbolizes the Soviet Union’s coming-of-age--Tolyan representing Stalin. But this lyrical film never allows the symbolism to interfere with the warmth and beauty of the storytelling. As a matter of fact, in keeping with the richness and complexity of the tale, Tolyan the betrayer is ultimately betrayed by Stalinism itself.