Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Kolya (Kolja, 1996), by Jan Svěrák.
Take one kid and dump them with a disreputable, selfish, inappropriate or downright dangerous father figure. The kid doesn’t have to be particularly cute, and the man may or may not be the child’s actual father. It doesn’t matter, because if you play this well-worn combo well enough there won’t be a dry eye in the house…
This formula has been going almost as long as cinema itself. One of the best early examples came during the early days of the talkies with The Champ, starring Wallace Beery as a drunken, irresponsible slugger and Jackie Cooper as his devoted son. A notable variation on the theme came in 1973 with Paper Moon, starring real-life father and child duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as a selfish con man and his daughter on the road working scams.
The formula got pretty crazy in the ’90s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable cyborg became an unlikely surrogate father to Edward Furlong’s tearaway teen in T2: Judgement Day; things got a bit iffy in Leon: The Professional as Jean Reno’s childlike hitman sheltered a very young Natalie Portman from a demented pill-popping cop, teaching her a few tricks of the trade along the way.
Jan Svěrák also had a stab at it in the ’90s with Kolya, starring his dad Zdeněk as an ageing, skirt-chasing bachelor who gets lumbered with a young Russian boy when his dodgy arranged marriage goes belly up. Set in the dying days of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, Svěrák senior plays František Louka, a former concert cellist who was busted down to playing at funerals after making a few unwise comments to the authorities on his return from a trip to the West. Now he’s skint, owes money to his friends, and his life is pretty listless. It’s not all bad though, because he has a pretty sweet garret apartment with a killer view of Prague Castle, from where he conducts affairs with a variety of gorgeous women.
His financial situation makes it pretty easy for his gravedigger friend Mr. Brož (Ondřej Vetchý) to persuade him to enter into a lucrative bogus marriage with a young Russian woman, so she can get Czechoslovak citizenship. She then uses the citizenship to do a runner to West Germany to hook up with her real boyfriend. Circumstances contrive to leave Louka in sole charge of his runaway bride’s young son Kolya and facing scrutiny from the authorities about the exact nature of his relationship with the Russian woman.
Kolya is a confidently directed and nicely shot film which has a firm sense of time and place. The animosity of the Czechs toward their unwelcome occupiers is keenly felt, as Louka has to lie about the marriage because his elderly mother despises collaborators with the Russians.
Svěrák Jr largely steers clear of overt sentimentality – quite remarkable since this is the man who made The Elementary School – which is a relief given the subject matter. I stayed away from this film for so long is because most of the cover art makes it look like corny heartstring-twanging pap. Just take look at the posters and tell me you can’t imagine a Hollywood remake starring Robin Williams and Haley Joel Osment.
Although the story goes pretty much exactly how you would expect, the emotional beats ring true without becoming overplayed. This is largely thanks to daddy Svěrák’s performance as Louka. He plays him as a slightly forlorn, self-centred asshole, and he never deviates. Even when Louka’s heart inevitably warms towards the boy and he starts acting like a father towards him, he still gives the impression that he’d much rather be trying to get into the knickers of a young cello student instead.
Louka’s assholery is neatly balanced by two terrifically warm adult performances. A kind and graceful Libuše Šafránková plays Klara, a married singer who is having an affair with Louka, and Ondřej Vetchý as the gravedigger friend, Brož. Brož is a neat counterpoint to Louka – the cellist is an artist capable of bringing beautiful music to life but prefers to live alone; Brož does manual work among the dead and chooses to fill his home with as much life as possible.
Then there is Andrey Khalimon as Kolya himself. Sullen and silent for most of the film, Khalimon’s performance is a long way away from the typical moppet you often see in Hollywood movies. When he finally does show some emotion, it is a really heartbreaking moment.
Kolya won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and isn’t hard to see why. The Academy often chooses the tried-and-tested over innovation and the movie’s strength lies in playing familiar notes with solid craft and absolute assurance. The result is a resounding crowd-pleaser that is a reliable choice for an evening’s entertainment.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.