Ringed in mud, snow and crumbling mortar, the Russian orphanage in Andrei Kravchuk's

The Italian

is teeming with kids who have pinned their every hope on the next couple to walk in from France or America.

And the older kids? The ones, who season after season, were passed by? Well, a skinny girl with red hair goes down to the highway to turn tricks. A few boys run a thriving black-market concern.

An impressive feature debut from the documentary-trained Kravchuk, The Italian centers on 6-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), a plucky stray who gains his nickname - the movie's title - after a young husband and wife from Italy decide he's the one for them.

After the first meeting, arranged by the cell-phone-wielding adoption broker (Maria Kuznetsova) and the orphanage's rummy headmaster (Yuri Itskof), the couple return to Italy to await the big day.

But Vanya begins to wonder about his real mother - so much so that he learns to read, so he can rifle the orphanage's files and read his dossier, discover who she is, where she lives.

And then, escape to find her.

A powerful indictment of Russia's illegal adoption industry - and a story of pipsqueak resolve and resilience - The Italian is clear-eyed and tough in its depiction of a corrupt, atrophied social order. But it is also, at times, as it tracks its tiny, runny-nosed hero around train stations and dark alleys, a little sentimental, a little weepy, like some street urchin with a good con going.

The Italian *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Andrei Kravchuk, written by Andrei Romanov. With Kolya Spiridonov, Denis Moiseenko and Sasha Sirotkin. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In Russian with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, sexual content, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five

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Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.