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.

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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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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Sun, Hay, Strawberries (Slunce, seno, jahody) – Zdeněk Troška, 1983

“What do you think of Slunce, Seno, Jahody?” I messaged a Czech friend after my first viewing of the lowbrow villagecore classic.

“Cheap jokes for people who vote Zeman.” Came her rather sniffy reply.

Sign of the times, I guess – I wanted to talk movies and she gets all political on me. Not that her reply was entirely unexpected. The film has a reputation of being loud, crude and stupid – pretty much how young progressive urban Czechs regard those living in rural areas, who tend to be the kind of people who vote for Trump-ish characters like the drunken, bigoted, chain-smoking President Zeman.

Make no mistake, Slunce, Seno, Jahody is extremely loud, crude and stupid. To give an example of the level of humour, one scene features a senile old lady trying to hide a turd from her overbearing daughter. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. However, the film has a directness that I appreciated, unlike the ponderous pace of so many Czech movies I’ve seen so far. It bounces along nicely with a goofy energy that I found genuinely charming.

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Angels (Andělé všedního dne) – Alice Nellis, 2014

Death comes to us all, and when that last moment stretches out to eternity, all men face the same questions. Have I lived my life to the fullest? Have I done the best for my loved ones? Was I man enough when circumstances demanded it? Did I dare disturb the universe? Did I get enough blowjobs?

Andělé všedního dne by Alice Nellis is a crass, tasteless and utterly depressing film. It tries to say things about mortality and kindness, but is literally about a man who thinks his life is shit because he’s never been sucked off before.

Ever reliable Bolek Polívka plays Karel, an ageing driving instructor stuck in a loveless marriage with his neurotic, sour-faced wife Marie (Zuzana Bydžovská). They’ve been married for twenty-seven years, but he’s never experienced the pleasures of oral sex. Karel has the hots for Ester (Klára Melíšková), one of his pupils and a recently widowed doctor. It is the last day of Karel’s life, and four angels arrive on earth to oversee his final few hours.

There are other characters vaguely populating the background, including Václav Neužil as a stalker, whose life will intersect with Karel’s at the most unlikely and inconvenient moment. Andělé všedního dne is a small film overcrowded with lots of thinly written characters, but its main dramatic thrust depends on this – will Karel die with a smile on his face?

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I, Olga (Já, Olga Hepnarová) – Petr Kazda & Tomás Weinreb, 2016

I was excited to see Já, Olga Hepnarová as part of a full house crowd on its first release. Often when I watch Czech movies at the cinema the audience is me, the projectionist and his dog, so it was pleasing to see people resisting the lure of the multiplex to support a film as resolutely un-popcorn as this. It’s a sombre arthouse character study of the the last woman to be executed in Czechoslovakia.

We meet Hepnarová (Michalina Olszanska) recovering from a failed suicide attempt, and after a spell in a psychiatric hospital she shuns her comfy middle-class family to take work as a truck driver. Bitter and alienated, she lives in semi-squalor in the family’s summer cottage, drinking, smoking and seducing local women. As her mental health deteriorates, she imagines herself the victim of a bullying society, and plots callous revenge.

Up and coming Polish actress Olszanska puts in a fantastic performance as Hepnarová. She never asks for the audience’s sympathy and is immensely watchable despite her permanently glowering countenance.

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