Unfolding during the buildup to the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the end of Communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia, “Kolya” is a bittersweet comedy-drama about a cherubic Russian tyke and a middle-aged cynic thrown together by circumstance. Fast-rising young Czech director Jan Sverak’s fourth feature balances heartwarming sentiment with gentle humor and observations that strike universal chords. A recordbreaking hit at the Czech box office, this highly commercial Miramax release could make quite an assault on the mainstream arthouse market.
Since his Oscar-nominated 1992 debut, “The Elementary School,” 31-year-old Sverak has established himself as the most versatile and commercially successful of the new Czech filmmakers. He followed in 1994 with the big-budget sci-fi parody “Accumulator 1,” then in 1995 with the shoestring road movie “The Ride.”
Scripted by the director’s father, Zdenek Sverak, who also stars, the new feature appears to have all the elements in place to thrust Sverak Jr. into the major league. While some critics and highbrow arthouse denizens may balk at its unrestrained tugging of the heartstrings, and at a political backdrop that remains just that, this seems unlikely to hinder the extremely accomplished production from breaking through to a wider public.
Virtuoso cellist Frantisek Louka (Sverak) hits hard times after being demoted from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to playing funerals for having slighted a Communist official. A lifelong womanizer vehemently opposed to marriage and commitment, he nonetheless agrees to a friend’s suggestion to wed Nadezda (Irena Livanova), a young Russian woman seeking Czech citizenship. The cash he earns from the deal allows him to clear his debts and buy a car.
Unexpectedly, Nadezda disappears to West Germany, leaving her 5-year-old son, Kolya (Andrej Chalimon), with his grandmother (Lilian Mankina). When she is taken ill and rushed to hospital, Kolya is dumped on Frantisek’s doorstep. The situation becomes less temporary when the old woman dies. With no common language between them, the reluctant father and son keep their distance at first , while Frantisek tries unsuccessfully to unload the kid. But mutual affection slowly develops.
The inevitable police interrogation resulting from Frantisek’s sudden marriage threatens to split the pair, as does the tardy arrival of a social services rep. Ultimately, the overthrow of communism divides them, opening up the frontiers and allowing Nadezda to return.
The script makes some ironic points on conflicting Czech attitudes toward Russia, most pointedly through Frantisek’s mother (Stella Zazvorkova), who complains that the country town where she lives is crawling with Soviet soldiers and becomes hostile on discovering Kolya’s origins. But this is textural embroidery on what is essentially a two-handed drama, the components of which are familiar but no less touching for it.
While it feels a little leisurely coming into focus, the real center of the film is the gradual establishment of trust and love between Kolya and Frantisek, and the changes this prompts in the latter. Both actors bring enormous warmth to their roles. Around the two protagonists, scripter Sverak has drawn a colorful assortment of secondary characters, including a string of the cellist’s lovers, that in many ways recalls Czech new wave pics of the 1960s.
Production values are superior, from Vladimir Smutny’s glowing lensing — whether gloriously capturing the splendors of Prague and the surrounding countryside or zeroing in on the most intricate of details — to Ondrej Soukup’s richly emotive score.