Kolya (Kolja) – Jan Svěrák, 1996

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.

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.

***

You can pick up a copy of Kolya from Amazon here.

Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) – Jan Hřebejk, 2000

Would you have the courage to hide someone from the Nazis during World War II? It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself, because the Holocaust still feels very present here in central Europe. Just down the road from my apartment, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the Jewish and Romani victims from the city. In the summer, Roma children will play in the fountain, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades. I’ve also been to Auschwitz, and I’ve spent some time in Bosnia, talking to people who survived another genocide.

So I’ve asked myself the question, and ten years ago my answer would’ve definitely been yes, I’d hide them. Now though, the answer is more troubling – now I have a family of my own, I’m not sure I would be brave enough to risk my children’s lives to harbour someone else.

This moral question is the central premise of Divided We Fall, Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated black comedy. Bolek Polívka and Anna Šišková play Josef and Marie, a childless couple who are forced into that life or death dilemma when David (Csongor Kassai), Josef’s former friend and boss, escapes a concentration camp in Poland and makes his way back home…

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Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969/1990

Banned for over twenty years and only released after the Velvet Revolution, Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String is a film out of time. It was one of the director’s more overtly critical works in the ’60s, openly sarcastic about the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. As a result, it endured censure and became a valuable relic of the grim post-Prague Spring era, lacking the timelessness of Menzel’s more gently comedic films of the period…

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From Subway With Love (Román pro ženy) – Filip Renč, 2005

From Subway with Love is the English title for Román pro ženy (A Novel for Women), although a more appropriate title may have been Men’s Midlife Crisis: The Movie…

I approached the film with pretty low expectations, because a) I’ve already come into contact with two movies adapted from his own novels by the virulent Michal Viewegh, and b) this DVD cover art –

Let’s take a moment to see what we have here. There’s a beautiful young woman, staring seductively at the camera. She’s in a submissive pose, kneeling as she kisses the hand of a man, who is mostly out of the frame. The positioning of the man’s forearm suggests that the rest of his body is open to the camera. I’m intrigued by what is happening outside the borders of this photo. What could the man be doing while this young woman is humbling herself before his masculinity? Drinking a beer? Unzipping his fly? Playing paddle ball? Check out later in the review to find out…

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Behold Homolka (Ecce homo Homolka) – Jaroslav Papoušek, 1969

We open in an idyllic forest somewhere in the Czechoslovak paradise, and two teens have found a discreet spot for a little nookie on a summer’s afternoon. Their amorous encounter is soon interrupted though – first by ants having a nibble, then by the noise created by the boorish Homolka family descending on the peaceful scene for a picnic.

There’s plenty of boors in the countryside in Czech movies, which led me to coin the term “bumpkincore” to describe a certain type of Czech comedy. The twist here is that the bumpkins are from the city rather than the village. They’re in the woods to let their screaming kids run around, cool their beer in the stream, and doze in the shade of the trees.

The female half of the canoodling couple thinks quickly – she starts crying for help. Sometimes it feels like Czechs would rather step over your stricken body if you fell down with a heart attack than lend a hand, so it’s a smart move: dozens of daytrippers hear the distress call, pack up their families and picnic gear, and beat a hasty retreat to the city…

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Holiday Makers (Účastníci zájezdu) – Jiří Vejdělek, 2006

A broad cross-section of Czech society go on a coach trip to Slovenia for their holidays, and much mirthlessness ensues. While this ensemble comedy-drama from Jiří Vejdělek is wildly unfunny, it is strangely entertaining, if only because it serves as another terrifying glimpse into the cynical and predatory mind of the Czech Republic’s pervert laureate, Michal Viewegh.

The best selling author also provided the source material for easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, Andělé všedního dne (Angels of Everyday). While the attitudes towards sex and women in Holiday Makers aren’t quite as repellent as in that movie, it is still pretty reprehensible. It’s worth saying at this point that I haven’t read Viewegh’s original material for either so perhaps the subtleties of his work don’t translate well to film. However since I found the sexual politics in both films gross, crass and just plain creepy, I think it’s fair to say that I probably have a vastly different worldview to the writer. But more on that later…

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A Prominent Patient (Masaryk) – Julius Ševčík, 2016

It was a full house at Kino Art for a Friday night screening of Julius Ševčík’s Masaryk (aka A Prominent Patient), and it made uncomfortable viewing. I was about the last one in and had to sit on the front row, one English guy watching a film about how my country sold out Czechoslovakia with a room full of Czechs.

I grew up thinking that we were unconditionally the good guys. In history class, we learnt a little about the Munich Agreement, saw pictures of Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper and his infamous “Peace for our time” speech. Our teacher never really got into the human consequences of it – who cared about Czechoslovakia anyway? He just wanted to get to the fun stuff, and it was just a prologue before Winston Churchill sparked up a big cigar and guided us to our Finest Hour.

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