Little Orphan Commie
Kolya is being talked up as the odds-on favorite to cop this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film. It just might win. It's cuddly and heartwarming and life-affirming in that sentimental way that tends to impress Academy jurors who favor poky, old-fashioned Hollywood weepies in foreign camouflage. Kolya is a sweet little nothing of a movie that recalls such home-grown sweet potatoes as The Champ or Little Miss Marker. Since nowadays even Hollywood shies away from this sort of hyper-stickiness, a movie such as Kolya is free to fill the void with a vengeance. It has subtitles, so you don't have to feel like a slob crying at all the dumb stuff.
Produced in the Country Formerly Known as Czechoslovakia, Kolya superficially resembles some of the homey, decent, occasionally deeply felt movies from the Czech New Wave that flourished in the '60s, before the Soviet tanks rolled in. Directors such as Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel and especially Ivan Passer gave us ordinary lives so sympathetically observed they no longer seemed ordinary. Passer's 1965 Intimate Lighting, about a reunion of classical musicians, was almost Chekhovian--it recognized the grace in the everyday.
I single out Passer's film because its hero was a young cellist with the Prague Philharmonic; in Kolya--which begins just before the 1989 Velvet Revolution ending Communist rule--the hero is a cellist formerly of the Czech Philharmonic reduced to playing funerals because he insulted a Communist official.
But whereas Passer was a folk artist, Kolya's 32-year-old director, Jan Sverak, is just folksy. The cellist, Frantisek Louka, is played by the director's father, veteran actor-writer Zdenek Sverak, who also wrote the script. (He also scripted his son's 1992 Oscar-nominated first feature, The Elementary School.) Sverak the Younger is a dutiful son; he gives Sverak the Elder almost as many doting close-ups as he gives 5-year-old Kolya (Andrej Chalimon), a Russian cherub with Dondi eyes and a bowl haircut.
The film starts out when Frantisek, a womanizer who uses his cello bow to lift the skirts of unsuspecting divas, agrees to marry for cash a young Russian woman in need of Czech citizenship. When she disappears unexpectedly into West Germany, leaving behind her little Kolya, Frantisek is flummoxed. He takes care of the boy in that aggravated, all-thumbs way that is supposed to be so cute in countless movies about single dads.
Although neither Frantisek nor Kolya speaks the other's language, they get by. Frantisek pretends gruffness, but--Wouldn't you know?--he's really a cream puff. When he accidentally loses Kolya in the underground subway, he's a whirling dervish until he finds him again. This scene, like so many others, is in the movie just in case we hadn't clued into the ongoing father-son bondathon.
Kolya is supposed to demonstrate how Frantisek is humanized--and politicized--by the boy. When the Communist authorities investigate his sham marriage, it's not long before the social services people turn up to cart the kid away. Frantisek is an amiable lowlife, but his classical-music training is supposed to key us in to his finer instincts. When his relationship with Kolya is threatened, he turns into the caring nationalist we always knew he could be.
There are some nice touches, such as the scene in which a friend of Frantisek reads in Russian a bedtime story to Kolya over the phone. A sequence in which Frantisek's mother (Stella Zazvorkova) finds out Kolya is Russian is a biting piece of social observation; the old woman hates her occupiers, but she can't entirely hate the boy.
Most of the time, though, Kolya is conventionally sentimental. Can it really be true that American audiences--not to mention critics--embrace this stuff simply because it's subtitled? When the wafer-thin Iranian movie The White Balloon came out last year, I was amazed at its rapturous reception. It had a story about a brother and sister trying to fish money out of a sewer grating--I mean, wasn't that an old Leave It to Beaver episode? I realize that national differences are not negligible, that these stories are intended to be political allegories, et cetera. Still, goo is goo. If Kolya were redone in Hollywood, it would probably be knocked as a shameless tearjerker. On the other hand, it might just as easily be a smash hit, so maybe it's better this way--subtitled, "folksy," and far from our shores. Until Oscar night.
Zdenek Sverak, Andrej Chalimon, Libuse Safrankova, Stella Zazvorkova. Written by Zdenek Sverak. Directed by Jan Sverak. Opens February 28.
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