Living in the era of the single parent, we're constantly reminded that the raising of a healthy, happy child is a daunting task to take on as a solo act. But what happens when that parent's own desire for companionship opens the door to even further hardships? Look for the answers in "The Thief," a period piece by director Pavel Chukhrai that's far more interesting as a study in "family' psychology than as a metaphor for the Stalinist 1950s Russia in which it's set.
Six-year-old Sanya (Misha Philipchuk) is a child of war who never knew his soldier father. He travels the Russian countryside with his young mother, Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova), who searches for food and shelter as Sanya whiles away the miles obsessing over his vanished dad.
The routine is interrupted when Katya becomes instantly attracted to Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), a ruggedly handsome soldier who's booked into their train compartment. Katya's affections are more than slightly capricious, given the desperation of her and her son's situation: She has furtive sex with Tolyan in a secluded corner of the train almost as soon as she's met him, and overnight, the duo has become a trio, with a jealous Sanya instructed to call the stranger "Daddy."
It soon becomes clear to Katya that she's made a bad mistake. The military man is actually a thief and a con artist, robbing their new neighbors of their few possessions every time they put down roots in a new community. He's also a brutally authoritarian figure, filling Sanya's head with twisted lessons about the cruelty of life.
The irony is that, in many ways, he's the better parent. Despite his viciousness, he displays an undercurrent of genuine feeling for the boy. Katya's behavior is more insidious in its unthinking abuse, as she flits between the roles of lover and mother with a lack of concern for Sanya's stability that marks her as a perpetual child herself.
In the end, the rickety bed the two lovers have made comes apart, and Sanya has both of his lackluster role models taken from him in traumas that aren't as separate as they initially seem. Even the vision of his real father has forever disappeared from his mind, leaving him an orphan of the state and of his own heart. So long Mom, so long Dad, and thanks for all those wasted years.