Riddle, The

(Russia/USA childhood drama color)

Toronto Film Festival l996–The Riddle, Evan Brenner's feature debut, aspires to belong to the great international childhood films, made by Truffaut, Malle, Hallstrom, and Tarkovsky, but instead it comes across as an extremely self-conscious, small-scale exploration of a Russian boy coming to terms with his mother's sudden death.

Most notable aspect of picture is that it was made in Russia by an American indie director. However, despite a strong central performance by Pasha Ivanov, modest overall impact and familiarity with the subject may present obstacles for theatrical distribution.

Set in and around the city of Perm, yarn is told from the perspective of Sasha (Ivanov), a boisterous 10-year-old boy, who lives with his drunken father, a prison guard. Still haunted by the sudden disappearance of his mother when he was a child, Sasha tries to gather bits and pieces of info about the circumstances of her death, which is surrounded with a veil of mystery.

Sasha's only meaningful bond is with his next-door neighbor, Natasha (Sasha Melinkova), a shy girl with whom he explores the countryside, sitting for hours on the banks of the river talking, fishing, and so on. Things change dramatically, when Sasha is taken to a state orphanage, where he befriends some orphan boys and together they set on a life of exploit and pranks as befit their age.

Though set in Russia, story brings to mind numerous childhood films that have charted similar territory. Hence, Sasha and Natasha's friendship echoes the two children (one orphan) in Rene Clement's intensely moving war-set drama, Forbidden Games, and the adventures that the orphans engage in, particularly the railroad sequences, recall Rob Reiner's affectionate boyhood pic, Stand By Me (and others).

A child confronting a traumatic death, in this case suicide, has also been examined better and deeper in My Life as a Dog, and the more recent French pic, Ponnette. These resemblances not only highlight the lack of fresh insights in the script, they also make Brenner's dreary film pallid in comparison with the classics. Even in its lyrical approach and gloomy ambience, The Riddle simply shows too much self-awareness of its genre.

Still, the film has some heart-wrenching moments, as when Sasha is locked in a prison cell by his father, and, later, when he's forced to embrace the truth, as told by a cruel peer, that his mother actually committed a suicide. Selected out of 200 kids, Ivanov has a lovely face and tender blue eyes that register strongly the emotionally painful journey forced upon a child by the adult world.

Richard Dallert's soft, lyrical lensing, an actual orphanage as a setting, and a non-professional cast (including many orphans) enhance considerably the film's authentic feel.

A Ural Film Studio and Buzzmar production. Executive producer, Yuri Torokhov. Co-producer, Olga Maximova, Konstantin Vail. Directed by Evan Brenner. Screenplay and editing, Danny and Evan Brenner. Camera (color), Richard Dallert; music, Danny Brenner; additional theme music, Rob Todd; production design, Sergei Dultsev; sound, Slava Liskov; assistant director, Rosina Lardieri; casting, Zoya Spivakovsky.

Running time: 87 minutes

Sasha……..Pasha Ivanov
Natasha…Sasha Melinkova
Misha……Georgi Blashov
Kostya……Ilia Tregubov
Slava…….Genya Ozharko