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Child actor shines in Oscar-winning 'Kolya'

Louka & Kolya April 4, 1997
Web posted at: 2:30 a.m. EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- By the time the Academy Awards are handed out every year, most film fans have devoured and digested the top releases and are anxiously anticipating the new crop of summer blockbusters.

You could do worse with this year's "down time" than dragging yourself out to see "Kolya," the Best Foreign Language Film of 1996. Subtitles mean, of course, that you'll have to be able to read.

movie icon 304 MB/1 min. 30 sec. QuickTime movie trailer

"Kolya" is the charming, superbly shot story of a Czech womanizer who finds reparation for his lifelong selfishness in the guise of an abandoned Russian child.

Although the main story line is not exactly original (minus the womanizing, this is basically Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid"), the performances and sure-handed direction meld with sometimes overt political commentary to elevate "Kolya" several degrees above the usual foreign-film tearjerker.

I don't mean to pigeonhole the entire international film community as needlessly weepy. But over the years, the most popular non-American features have shifted from the death-mongering gloom of Ingmar Bergman (whose work had attracted a vocal cult following by the mid-1960s) to something closely resembling a five hankie nose-blower.

You wouldn't see a modern-day group of suburbanites sitting down to, say, Bergman's powerful but difficult "Persona" at the mall multiplex. "Kolya" is very enjoyable, but whether it's the best thing to come out of Europe or Asia in the past year is another question.

A marriage of convenience


That said, "Kolya" is a highly entertaining, extremely touching 110 minutes. The film's production was something of a family affair, with Zdenek Sverak writing the screenplay and starring as the skirt-chasing cellist, Louka, while entrusting the directing reins to his son, Jan.

This is only fitting, because the story focuses on the trials of becoming a parent, with Louka slowly coming to the conclusion that -- to a great degree -- having a child means saying good-bye to the person you once were content to be. Kolya, who is dumped on Louka after an ill-fated marriage of convenience, is played by Andrej Chalimon.

The film is set in Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1988. Even though Louka is a masterful musician, he plays cello in a low-rent string quartet that performs only at funerals. The implication is that his obsession with the opposite sex resulted in his being booted from the Philharmonic. This suits him just fine -- less time at work means more time chasing women.

In dire need of extra cash (repairing his aging mother's home is wiping him out), he agrees to be paid to illegally marry a Soviet woman who is trying to establish Czech citizenship. The "marriage" lasts only a few days. Louka's new wife then unexpectedly flees to England, leaving behind her young son.

A child changes a life

Louka & Kolya

To say the least, taking care of a little boy puts a crimp in Louka's lifestyle. His inability to speak the child's native language only makes matters worse. At one point, when trying to apologize for losing him on the subway, Louka informs Kolya that "Donut is scary."

Director Sverak's comical, understated tone is best exemplified by a scene of Kolya taking a bath that establishes the passing of time through a close-up of the child's severely water-wrinkled fingers.

That understatement is what saves the movie from artery-clogging sweetness. In the hands of a ham-fisted American studio, this type of story would in all likelihood be unbearable.

The movie's saving graces lie in the magnificent photography, the deliberative pacing and the performances.

Where's the third act?

Chalimon, who's about 5, is a natural actor -- nonchalantly pulling off scenes with multiple emotional undercurrents.

In the movie's most heartbreaking moment, Kolya, who is in the bathtub and unaware that Louka is watching, tearfully pretends to talk on the phone (which is actually the detachable shower head) to his deceased grandmother.


From the outset, the distant rumble of Russian tanks in the streets lends an occasional sense of foreboding to the film, but the political turmoil is never allowed to come to a proper boil.

Toward the end of the movie, Louka tries to keep Kolya from the clutches of the governmental authorities but, for reasons I won't divulge, this menace is almost offhandedly snuffed out.

Most screenplays operate on a three-act structure (setup, development, climax), but "Kolya" seems to be missing the all-important third act.

Before that point, however, this is a graceful movie that's worthy of the American public's attention. So is "Persona," but that might be asking too much.


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