Child actor shines in Oscar-winning '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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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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