Once a prominent Philharmonic Orchestra cellist, Franta Louka (Zdenek Sverák) has fallen out of favour with the Russian authorities still in power in Czechoslovakia in 1988, and has been reduced to “fiddling for corpses”, playing with a string quartet at funerals around the Prague area. He earns a little extra money on the side by restoring lettering on headstones and would be able to earn more money if his transport situation was better, but he can’t even afford to buy a second-hand Trabant. A gravedigger friend suggests an easy way he can make a great deal of money quickly, through an temporary arranged marriage of convenience to a Russian relative, which will help her get the papers she needs to remain in Czechoslovakia. Although at the age of 55 he is no longer a young man, Louka values his single status, but the money offered is too much for a man in his position to refuse. Marrying Nadezhda (Irina Livanova) however inevitably gets him more than he bargained for – playing havoc with his love-life by chasing off all the lady-friends he used to be able to call on (like the gorgeous Klara - Libuse Safránková), but also, when his “wife” defects to West Germany, burdening him with her son, Kolya (Andrei Chalimon), who doesn’t speak a word of Czech.
Playing out like a more family-friendly version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kolya is a nicely scripted, attractively shot and charmingly played little film. Written by Zdenek Sverák, who himself plays Louka and is in real-life the father of the director Jan Sverák, the script even has a minor allegory in the temporary accommodation of Russian and Czech living side by side through necessity in Soviet-occupied Prague. The separation of Louka and Kolya comes about at the same time as political events culminate in the Velvet Revolution of the overthrow of the Communist authorities in Prague in 1989 and Louka is left looking at himself in the mirrored glass of the airport departure lounge doors. Admittedly though, I could be trying to read a little too much into this. While the period is important and there is some sense of the authoritarian police state that has ruined Louka’s career, which insists that he display both Russian and Czech flags prominently in his window and which threatens him with further reprisals for having set-up an arranged marriage to let a Russian citizen defect to the West - I don’t think the backdrop is the most successful part of the film. Although it was indeed a bloodless revolution, I think events and people’s circumstances were a little more serious than they are depicted here.
At heart however, Kolya is essentially little more than a cute kid film, and on this level it is better than most. Sure, all the set-ups are quite predictable, with some calculated tear-jerking moments, and the lesson that Louka learns that you are never being too old to change your ways has been explored in a similar fashion in many other films where a confirmed bachelor has to deal with unexpected parenthood. The film however underplays these elements well, with a knowing degree of gentle satire, and it doesn’t go for the easy comfortable feel-good ending. As far as cute kids go, they don’t come cuter than Andrei Chalimon, who plays Kolya with a delicate natural charm, absent of the slightest trace of precocity. He’s the perfect partner for Zdenek Sverák also plays the aging bachelor Louka with understated wit. Most importantly, by keeping Louka the focus of the film and forging other strong relationships between supporting characters, it doesn’t have to depend too much on the uncomfortable parent relationship, which keeps the film just on the right side of feel-good sentimentality.
Kolya was released earlier this year on Region 2 DVD by Buena Vista and is now available from the links to the left at budget price.
The print is transferred anamorphically enhanced in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. There is a little bit of grain in the image, perhaps a little more than would be expected, but it presents a nice texture to the otherwise fine image, which is clear, bright and pleasantly warm-toned. There are a few minor marks, one or two of them fairly large, but generally they are rare and scarcely noticeable. Compression artefacts are well controlled and pose little problem.
The audio track is clearly presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. There is little requirement for surround effects, so this is certainly more than adequate. Dialogue is clear and the musical score is well presented.
Both English and English Hard of Hearing subtitles are included, as well as a number of other languages. Subtitles are in white font, correctly sized and optional. They are also well placed, even moving to the top of the screen in one instance when they would otherwise obscure information lower in the screen.
The only extra feature on the DVD is a short Behind The Scenes Featurette (20:38), which consists mainly of brief interviews with Jan and Zdenek Sverák, covering scripting, casting and shooting, interspersed with the filming of a number of scenes.
If you regard the winning of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars as a good indicator of quality and accessibility in a foreign film, then Kolya will fulfil all your requirements in the same way as Cinema Paradiso. It’s not particularly original or challenging, but has plenty of style and charm. Buena Vista’s DVD presents the film with a good quality transfer and good supporting material, which is extremely good value for a budget release.