Take one vulnerable kid and dump them with a really disreputable, selfish, unlikely, inappropriate or downright dangerous father figure. The kid doesn’t have to be particularly cute, and the man may or may not be the kid’s actual father. It doesn’t matter, because if you play this well-worn combo well enough there won’t be a dry eye in the house…
This formula has been going almost as long as cinema itself. One of the best early examples came during the early days of the talkies with The Champ, which starred Wallace Beery as a drunken, irresponsible slugger and Jackie Cooper as his disappointed but devoted son. A notable variation on the theme came in 1973 with Paper Moon, starring real-life father and child duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, who played a selfish con man and his maybe-daughter on the road working scams.
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The formula got pretty crazy in the ’90s. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unstoppable cyborg got reprogrammed and became an unlikely surrogate father to Edward Furlong’s tearaway teen in T2: Judgement Day; things got a bit iffy in Léon: The Professional as Jean Reno’s childlike hitman ended up sheltering a young Natalie Portman from a demented pill-popping cop, and teaching her a few tricks of the trade along the way…
More recently, the surprisingly touching Guardians of the Galaxy featured a love-hate relationship between UFO abductee Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the blue-skinned space pirate who raised him; more down to earth was Taika Waititi’s charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, where a juvenile delinquent ends up hiding out in the New Zealand bush with the cantankerous outdoorsman who reluctantly adopted him.
Czech director Jan Svěrák also had a stab at it in the ’90s with Kolya, starring his dad Zdeněk as a middle-aged, skirt-chasing bachelor who gets lumbered with a young Russian boy when his dodgy arranged marriage goes tits up. Set in the dying days of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, Svěrák senior plays František Louka, a former concert cellist who was busted down to playing at funerals after he made a few unwise comments to the authorities on his return from a trip to the West. Now he’s skint, owes money to his friends, and his life is pretty listless. (Although it must be noted that he can’t be that skint because he does live in a pretty sweet garret flat with a killer view of Prague castle.)
His financial situation makes it pretty easy for his gravedigger friend – and creditor – Mr. Brož (Ondřej Vetchý) to persuade him to enter into a lucrative bogus marriage with a young Russian woman, so she can acquire Czechoslovak citizenship. She then uses the citizenship to do a runner to West Germany to hook up with her real boyfriend. Circumstances contrive to leave Louka in sole charge of his runaway bride’s young son Kolya and facing scrutiny from the authorities about the exact nature of his relationship with the Russian woman.
Kolya is a confidently directed and handsomely shot film which has a nice sense of time and place. The animosity of the Czechs toward their unwelcome occupiers is keenly felt, as Louka feels it necessary to lie about the marriage to his elderly mother who despises collaborators with the Russians.
Svěrák Jr largely steers clear of overt sentimentality – quite remarkable since this is the man who made The Elementary School – which is commendable given the subject matter. The reason I stayed away from this film for so long is that most of the cover art makes it look like corny heartstring-twanging pap. Just look at this poster and tell me you can’t imagine a Hollywood remake starring Robin Williams and Haley Joel Osment:
Although the story goes pretty much exactly how you would expect, the emotional beats ring true without getting overplayed. This is largely thanks to daddy Svěrák’s performance as Louka. He plays him as a slightly forlorn, self-centred asshole, and he never deviates. Even when Louka’s heart inevitably warms towards his young charge and he starts acting like a father towards him, he still gives the impression that he’d much rather be trying to get into the knickers of one of his hot young cello students instead.
Louka’s assholery also works because it is neatly balanced by two terrifically warm adult performances. A kind and graceful Libuše Šafránková plays Klara, a married singer who is having an affair with Louka, and Ondřej Vetchý as the gravedigger Brož. Brož is a neat counterpoint to Louka – the cellist is an artist capable of bringing beautiful music to life but prefers to live alone, while Brož works among the dead but chooses to fill his home with as much life as possible.
Then there is Andrey Khalimon as Kolya himself. Sullen and silent for most of the film, Khalimon’s performance is a long way away from the typical moppet you often see in Hollywood movies. When he finally does show some emotion, it’s a really heartbreaking moment.
Kolya won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and it’s easy to see why. The Academy often chooses the tried-and-tested over innovation and the movie’s strength lies in playing familiar notes with craft and absolute assurance. The result is a resounding crowd-pleaser that’s a reliable choice for an evening’s entertainment.