King of Thieves (2004)

 “Barbu–King of the Circus!”

The marvelously entertaining Czech film, King of Thieves begins in a small remote Ukrainian village as two village children–Mimma (Julia Khanverdieva) and Barbu (Iakov Kultiasov) entertain the locals with an amateur acrobatic show. But then in the distance, the villagers spot a white Jaguar which they recognize as belonging to the larger than life–Caruso (Lazar Ristovski). Caruso, apparently, periodically appears in the village to recruit children for his European circus, and this is how it works: Caruso spies a likely child, pays the acquiescent parents X number of rubles. He promises fame and fortune, and the child leaves never to return.

kingBarbu’s dream comes true when Caruso selects him, and he confidently talks Caruso into taking his adopted sister too. There’s a horrible sense that something is terribly wrong with this arrangement, but no questions are asked and a tearful Mimma and a triumphant Barbu leave with Caruso.

While it’s fairly obvious that Caruso is up to no good, ten-year-old Barbu is too young to read the signals. Even when he’s separated from Mimma, taken to a dilapidated Big Tent in a walled compound in Germany, and thrown inside a tatty trailer, Barbu still believes that he’ll be “the King of the Circus.” Caruso feeds this idea by sustaining Barbu’s faith with his gregarious demeanor and doing the odd magic trick. He’s teamed up with a tough Albanian boy named Marcel (Oktay Ozdemir) who teaches him the ropes, and soon Barbu is trained to steal from incautious shoppers and tourists. Barbu delights Caruso, and while Caruso’s vicious underlings spot the fact that Barbu is potentially trouble, Caruso has a weakness for the boy. Meanwhile Caruso loses Mimma in a card game to a revolting pimp.

King of Thieves works incredibly well–partially because the audience sniffs that Caruso is an utter rotter from the start, so we follow Barbu’s fate with baited breath, and a sense that we cannot abandon this delightful, bright, and persistent little boy. Also Caruso’s false world of the circus creates a layer of the phantasmagorical that is underscored by the scenes of Caruso’s past as a trapeze artist with his now crippled partner Julie (Katharina Thalbach). Julie–who looks as though she just stepped from Weimar’s Berlin–is also attracted to Barbu’s spirit. And in many ways to the twisted couple (Julie and Caruso), Barbu represents their lost idealism.

The film includes some painful scenes of abuse of the children enslaved by Caruso’s net, but this is a riveting tale, and it deserves a much wider audience. It’s the sort of foreign film that people who don’t like foreign film would find themselves enjoying. The DVD extras include an interview with director Ivan Fila in which he explains the difficulties he had completing the film–as well as the real life incidents behind the story. In German with English subtitles.

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