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The Old Man and the Boy

Kolya
Czech Mates: Zdenek Sverak (left) and Andrej Chalimon face a troubled world together.

Jan Sverak's 'Kolya' delivers a familiar tale of intergenerational bonding

By Richard von Busack

FULL OF THE DAPPLED SUNLIGHT, antiestablishment humor and slightly overripe women that epitomize modern Czech comedy, Kolya is a fairly unmixed pleasure--sugary at times but always tart. Zdenek Sverak (father of director Jan Sverak) plays Frantisek, an apolitical but politically blacklisted cellist in the last days of Russian occupation in Czechoslovakia in 1988. A glum fellow on the lines of Rip Torn, Frantisek, now in his mid-50s, has remained a lifelong bachelor, having been raised by his domineering mother to believe that music and family life don't mix. (This advice hasn't kept him from pursuing a pliant woman whose marital condition keeps matters between them in a state of the "lightness" enjoyed by Tomas the philanderer in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)

Living in his small, dizzyingly high, but cozy garret, the musician slides through a debt-ridden but undemanding existence playing music for funerals. He saws away while his mistress sings dirges and the coffins slide down a creaking conveyor belt into the maw of a crematorium (which Frantisek and his friends refer to as "the bakery") built underneath a social-realist bas relief. Being broke, Frantisek takes up a desperate proposition: He agrees to marry a Russian woman for money so that she can stay in Czechoslovakia. Nadezda (Irena Livanova) has motives of her own for the marriage, and she temporarily disappears, leaving her 5-year-old son in Frantisek's custody. His name is Nikolai, or Kolya, for short.

Anyone who's spent any time at the movies knows that the lad will humanize the old man and open Frantisek's eyes to the marvels of the world--everything from the pigeons pecking at his window to the stirrings of the Velvet Revolution. Such stories of the old man and the kid are lucrative movie muck, and the child playing Kolya (Andrej Chalimon) is an unregenerate young Moldavian ham. He even calls his dead grandmother up on an imaginary telephone in one bathetic vignette. But I forgive Kolya for the relative exoticness of the settings and for the elder Sverak's appealing gloominess--he has that cloudy Slavic look even when helping a pleasing young student named Blanka off with her panties.

Kolya will certainly please a crowd looking for the next Il Postino. Sverak is a student of commercial westernized camerawork, so Kolya doesn't look static even when the plot gets that way (as in a well-staged sequence in which Kolya gets lost on the Prague subway). It's heavy on the local color, and the views of the country are as sunny as the unthreatening view of families.


Kolya (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Jan Sverak, written by Zdenek Sverak, based on a story by Pavel Taussig, photographed by Vladimir Smutny and starring Zdenek Sverak and Andrej Chalimon.

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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