Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1996 Winner, Kolya


Director:  Jan Svěrák

Distributed by:  Space Films

Released:  May 1996

Country:  Czech Republic

What was it like living behind the Iron Curtain before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990?  In Ida, we saw Poland to be a black-and-white joyless enterprise; in The Lives of Others, East Germany is a police state where nothing is private and everyone is subject to government scrutiny.  Now with Kolya, we turn to Czechoslovakia just a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution of late 1989, which spelled the end of the communist system there.

One thing we know is the government didn’t have much of a sense of humor there.  Milan Kundera wrote a novel set early in the Cold War called The Joke, about a guy in 1950’s Czechoslovakia who unadvisedly makes a smart-alack crack about the government, written on a postcard for all to see.  That mistake led to banishment from the party and a few years working the mines.
Louka giving "cello lessons"
I guess things lightened up a bit by the late 80’s when this movie is set, because by the time Louka, a 55-year-old bachelor played by the guy who wrote the screenplay of this movie, Zdeněk Svěrák, makes a joke displeasing to the government, it only costs him his job playing cello for the Czech Philharmonic.  But don’t worry too much about Louka.  He makes money playing at funerals (hitting on his female co-musicians) and giving music lessons (creepily hitting on—and scoring with!—a young blonde student).   Still, he always seems strapped for cash.  A friend offers him a deal:  Marry a Russian girl trying to stay in Czechoslovakia for some serious dough.  Louka, reluctant at first, agrees.  He marries the girl, who comes along with a chain-smoking aunt an  a little boy named  . . . Kolya.
Big Daddy:  A bit less classy
He’s told this set up will only last for a short period of time, but two things happen—the wife splits for her boyfriend in West Germany, and then the aunt splits—permanently.  As in dead.  She dies.

So now we have a womanizing bachelor who doesn’t speak Russian stuck with a kid who doesn’t speak a word of Czech.  Louka doesn’t have a clue how to parent, and Kolya is lost away from his Russian home.  Like a cross between Kramer vs. Kramer and Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy, Louka and Kolya’s bumpy road from semi-strangers to father/son is the heart of this film.  This isn’t an outright comedy, but there are amusing moments, like the reaction of Louka and his mother when Kolya is happy to see troops from the hated Russian Army simply because they’re Russian.

The story here is nothing unique, and Louka is not all that different
Kramer vs. Kramer:  A little more weepy
than, say, Walter Matthau in 1976’s The Bad News Bears, cantankerous curmudgeon with a heart of gold.  But this was a fun film to watch, and another look into Europe just before the fall of the Soviet Union. The film, directed by the star’s
son, Jan Svěrák, is well-paced with just the right tone for this type of dramatic comedy—humor that isn’t too broad and no sentiment that would make you roll your eyes.

The Title:  The name of the kid.  Kolya means “Of the conquering army” in Russian.

Bad News Bears:  A little more boozy
The Culture:  Czechoslovakia in the late 80’s may not have been East Germany or Russia, but we are reminded subtlety and repeatedly that this is a communist state with an authoritarian government and tangible restrictions to on its people's freedoms. 

Agenda Danger:  Socialism is socialism.  If you’re an American who felt the Bern this election year, it wouldn’t hurt to be reminded about how this thing really works.  The joy expressed at the end of the film about the Velvet Revolution and the end of communism is portrayed as very real, and shared by the oppressed and the oppressors alike.

Best Picture that year:  The English Patient.

Rating:  A feel-good movie to see.  Maybe you won’t be thinking about it for any length of time when you are done and maybe you wouldn’t put it into any kind of Top Ten lists.  But definitely an entertaining story with likable characters.

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