American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
It is clear fairly early in “The Thief” that the title character represents Stalin, and it's one of the strengths of the film that the symbolism never gets in the way of a convincing, heartbreaking story. The movie, one of the 1998 Oscar nominees for best foreign film, never pushes too hard to make its point, but what's clear in every frame is the sense of hopelessness and betrayal in the years after World War II.
The movie is told through the eyes of Sanya, who is born on the roadside to a homeless mother in 1946, the first year of the Cold War. He is 6 when he and his mother are approached on a train by a man named Tolyan, who is dressed as an Army officer and may once have been one--or perhaps not. Nothing about him is trustworthy, which the mother and boy learn through many hard lessons.
“Uncle” Tolyan is a charming, mustachioed man, tall and robust in a land where many citizens seem weak, ill and hungry. It takes money to be healthy, and Tolyan is a thief--not only of money and possessions, but also of hearts. The mother, Katia (Ekaterina Rednikova), falls for him almost on sight, but of course her situation is desperate and there are sound Darwinian reasons for choosing a healthy, strong mate when you are unable to provide for yourself and your child. He looks like shelter from the poverty and hopelessness of 1952.
For the boy (Misha Philipchuk), it is a little more complicated. He often has visions of his real father, who died before he was born but speaks to him and promises to return soon. Yet all little boys are impressed by soldiers, and when Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) asks Sanya to look after his revolver, the boys eyes grow as wide as saucers. Soon the three are living together as a family, and the boy enters into an uneasy mixture of fear, respect and love for the man.