When a selfless widow finds late-in-life romance in “Ice Mother,” it changes her relationship with her selfish sons and her belief in the checklist she imposes on her life. The Czech Republic’s leading humanist helmer-writer Bohdan Sláma, the auteur behind “Something Like Happiness” and “Country Teacher,” crafts plum roles for a pair of beloved older stars —Slovak Zuzana Kronerová and Czech Pavel Nový — in his latest bittersweet dramedy. The film opened domestically in February and is still in cinemas, having scored more than 60,000 admissions. Offshore, it should appeal to the underserved 60+ audience segment looking for quality arthouse films about age-appropriate issues.
Hana (Kronerová, “Pupendo,” “Wild Bees”) is a 67-year-old widow who unstintingly carries on as if her husband were still alive. Remaining in the oppressive, coal-fire heated family home, she prepares an elaborate Sunday dinner each week for her two adult sons and their families, even though every get-together is marred by petty behavior on the part of one or both of the self-centered siblings.
Elder son Petr (Marek Daniel) is an underpaid civil servant who owes money to both his brother and his mother. Meanwhile, younger brother Ivan (Václav Neužil) is a successful businessman with a haughty, unpleasant wife, Kateřina (Tatiana Vilhelmová) who practically becomes ill at the prospect of consuming something not organic. They have a troubled young son, Ivanek (Daniel Vízek), who is bullied in school and interacts better with technology than people.
Hana spends most of her time acting as an unpaid maid/nanny for Ivan’s family, a fact that Petr bitterly resents. But it’s while taking care of Ivanek that she comes across the winter swimmers club, and is warmly welcomed to their number after she helps to pull one of their overexerting members from the river.
Broňa (Pavel Nový, “Conspirators of Pleasure,” “Little Otik”), the man Hana rescues, is a bit mysterious and quite a character. He lives in a rundown bus with a flock of chickens, including the jealous hen, Adela, and drives the group to and from their various competitions. Not only does he encourage Hana to start to swim, but he and his companions have copious patience for Ivanek and help him to develop social and other skills. But when the newly confident Hana starts to change her life and incorporate her newfound love into it, secrets from Broňa’s past threaten her plans.
For the first time, older characters are at the heart of a Sláma film, and Kronerová and Nový repay the helmer-writer with warm, dignified turns that require both soul- and flesh-baring. While one could easily picture a Hollywood remake of the basic storyline, it would be hard to imagine older Hollywood stars willing to so genuinely expose the depredations of aging.
As he proved in previous work, Sláma considers the solidarity of the family (whether nuclear or alternative) to be a basic prerequisite for a fulfilling human existence. The increasing childishness, selfishness and narcissism in today’s society provide key themes for him and are human failings that must be overcome in order for his characters to find, er, something like happiness. Indeed, the strong support the winter swimmers provide to each other stands in stark contrast to the interminable sniping of Petr and Ivan.
One minor quibble with the script is that the supporting players are less well-developed than in the helmer’s previous work; Vilhelmová, a Sláma stalwart, is particularly ill-served as the daughter-in-law from Hell. Nevertheless, Sláma’s gift for pithy dialogue and irreverent imagery remains intact. When Hana tells one of the club members about all the things she has to do, the woman bluntly replies, “You don’t have to do anything but die.” Likewise, it’s unlikely that Ivan and Kateřina would ever imagine the use to which Hana puts their gift of special extra organic olive oil.
Sláma’s regular crew provides a quality tech package in which the gray of the Prague winter contrasts with the cozy indoor spaces and colorful swimsuits that brighten the icy river. The long-take widescreen lensing of regular DP Diviš Marek allows emotion and energy to accumulate during a shot, and is at its loveliest with scenes of Hana and Broňa in the water.