KOLYA (Czech Republic, France, UK, 1996) *** 1/2
It also deserves a clean print, which is not always the case with foreign movies that, no matter how praised, play mostly in art houses. And since such theaters are not big producers of income for distributors, the latter only too often send them battered copies. In "Kolya," much good classical music is tied to the story and very well played, so that the sound is just as important as the images.
It also belongs in the tiny category of Best All-time Father-and-Son movies. Jan Sverak directed it. His father Zdenek Sverak wrote the script AND plays the top role of Louka.
Virtuoso cellist Frantisek Louka (Franta to his family and friends, Maestro Louka for others) was dismissed from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra by order of the apparatchiks who collaborated with the Soviets. The reason was so ludicrous that it makes good sense within the absurd context of the times.
The place is Prague, the year, 1988, the last one of the Soviet presence that will end with the final liberation of the country, the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (shown near the film's end) and the retreat of the "115,000 heavily armed Soviet soldiers that occupy our homeland" as per a Radio Free Europe broadcast heard in the movie.
The specific reason of Louka's fall comes out in bits. I won't reveal it in the body of this review, but I will do so after the end, for those who burn with curiosity.
Riddled with debts even after selling his car, the cellist can hardly survive by playing in a small ensemble at funerals in the Prague Crematorium, which the musicians call The Bakery. He also re-gilds ("with real gold") inscriptions on tombstones.
Maestro Louka is 55, has thinning hair, a beard with more salt than pepper, but he is a handsome, youthful figure a la Sean Connery in certain hirsute roles. Always worried by lack of money, he normally wears a serious expression.
Don't let this fool you. He is a bachelor who took his late father's advice that a professional musical career is incompatible with marriage. But Dad said "marriage" and not "women." Louka is a Don Juan, a womanizer whom the opposite sex finds irresistible. There is a large line-up of ladies, all professionals, all attractive in looks and personality.
If the man is politically incorrect by Government standards, as a lady-killer he is even more feministically incorrect .He cannot resist making passes at Klara, the group's singer, as they perform. An incorrigible voyeur, he lifts her skirt with his bow. On the street, his eyes rove. He still has his beautiful apartment with a view ("my tower") at the top of a lovely old building. He keep his phone busy as he calls old, recent or new conquests, married or into relationships. Just about all are willing to come and spend the night. Louka's little black book and his memory are so full that he often mistakes one invitee for another.
The movie paints a full, colorful portrait of Louka before getting into its other, big topic. This starts out with the musician's need for a car. He cannot even afford an outrageously priced, second-hand Trabant, that famous/infamous, hardy but primitive, uncomfortable polluter from East Germany. A grave-digger friend (another likable fellow, and with a picturesque family) comes up with a scheme: a hefty sum if Mr.Louka weds -- in name only --a Russian woman who wants Czech papers and the benefits thereof, mainly not having to go back to Russia. Reluctantly, Louka yields. This aspect is what, in the U,S. would be called the Green Card side of the picture.
Nadezda, the bride-on-paper, is ravishing, speaks no Czech, has a 5-year old boy called Kolya. Soon after the wedding she skips to West Germany where she has a married lover, leaving Kolya with Aunt Tamara. But when the older woman is hospitalized, Frantisek Louka gets stuck with the kid.
The child speaks no Czech, Louka remembers only bit of school-Russian. Problems of communication, legalities, and "fatherhood" arise. If you can't guess the rest, you haven't been going to the movies enough. But how can you help seeing things coming? The gradual bonding between Louka and Kolya, the changes in both, the growing "Dad" and "Son" relationship.
This has been a genre of films of all periods and nations. Yet if the tale's skeleton is familiar, the flesh that covers it in "Kolya" is wonderfully original. Yes, "Kolya" manipulates its public, but sometimes we love to be manipulated, especially when this is done with such charming, colorful, picturesque events and details. The movie has a way of keeping our interest without dead moments or breaks. It places whatever deja vu components it contains within a fresh-feeling context (and a quickly decipherable subtext) of Czech society, culture and life under the Soviets.
No one likes the Russians, least of all Louka's mother who lives at the family home along a beautiful provincial square. Inventive Louka first tells her the child is a Yugoslav, but this won't wash. The few Russians seen are soldiers, not ogres but nice young men, as we glimpse them in a terrific sequence where Kolya meets them.
The film is the production of a finally independent Czech Republic that no longers fears censorship and can say things that were taboo for decades. Nonetheless, what really gives it its fascination is that it remains faithful to the unique nature of films, the bittersweet irony, the distinctive humor, a feeling for absurdism, of films made mostly during the artistic boom of the Spring of Prague, that hiatus which began with liberalization in 1963 and ended with the Soviet invasion of 1968.
There is also that lovely thread of Czech literature that has little people fox, or get even with, unreasonable authority -- although this is attenuated here first because the Maestro is not an ordinary man and second because the Velvet Revolution is what brings a closure to his problems with the Establishment.
The basic scheme of Louka-Kolya rapport may be sweetly predictable, but the details and the presentation are consistently clever and novel. Among them is the fact that through thick and thin, Louka 's sexual adventures are unabated. In one, a beautiful blonde violinist comes to the Maestro because she wants to switch to the cello. It is a collector's item of eroticizing musical talk and instruments. In contrast, on another occasion Louka calls a different girlfriend, a teacher of Russian, not with an invitation to spend the night but for her to read to Kolya over the phone a fairy tale in the boy's native language.
The actors are superb, down to the smallest of supporting roles. Prague's great beauty is used of course, but functionally and discreetly, not in exploitative travel-poster fashion. Always in the background, the politics of the country are given a mocking or caustic rather a melodramatic treatment. Sentiment, leavened by wit, is ever-present, but not sentimentality in the pejorative sense of the word.
In an unassuming way "Kolya" covers a wide territory with warmth and deftness. It does not bang, it glides. Its production values are first-class, especially the imaginative and unpretentious photography and editing.
A winner all the way.
Written 15 April 1997