Since Baby LeRoy first put the screws to W.C. Fields back in the 1930s, the intractable child who torments the cranky old man has rampaged through movie history like a wild force of nature. The most celebrated recent example, of course, saw little Macaulay Culkin befouling the burglary schemes of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in Home Alone. But the most textured variation on the theme is to be found in Jan Sverak's Kolya, a Czech import that combines the usual collision between imp and misanthrope with a powerful tug on the heartstrings and a beautifully crafted political fable about changing times in Eastern Europe.
The alleged grownup here is an impoverished bachelor cellist named Frantisek Louka (Zdenek Sverak), age 55, who's been reduced, via his patriotic, anti-authoritarian big mouth, from state symphony grandeur to working string quartets at funerals. Often as not, Franta's wayward bow also finds its way under the skirt of the nearest warbling soprano. Even in straitened circumstances, even in Prague 1988, this bearded lecher fancies himself quite the playboy.
The child of the piece is a cute five-year-old named Kolya (Andrej Chalimon), who's dumped into Franta's semi-swinging existence when the old man's "green card" wedding goes awry: Franta has "married" a young Russian woman so she can get Czech papers and he can collect a big fee and finally buy a car. But when the elusive Mrs. Louka vanishes into West Germany and her aunt has a stroke, Franta's suddenly stuck with her little boy.
Don't expect much Shirley Temple stickum. In general, Czech filmmakers are famously warmhearted, but the harshness of life has also made them blessedly treacle-free. So the bonding process between man and boy in Kolya--resistance to acceptance to outright love--is characterized less by flowery melodrama than by the quiet illuminations of everyday life. The comic spectacle of the prickly, anti-Soviet Franta lecturing the bewildered five-year-old ("You are all expansionists!") gives way to the evening when, instead of trying to lure an old girlfriend into his charming garret, Franta calls her on the phone with a request to read a bedtime story to Kolya in the boy's native tongue.
There's a touch or two in here of DeSica's masterful Bicycle Thief, and the sequence in which surrogate father and son lose each other in the crowded subway reveals their panicked desperation in ways lesser moviemakers could never conjure up. The filmmakers may understand such things firsthand: Director Sverak is the son of screenwriter/star Sverak.
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They also understand politics. The film has a familiar sprinkling of comical state bureaucrats and mean-tempered cops, and unfolding as it does on the eve of newfound independence from the Russians, it contains a subtle, soft-pedaled message about the shifting relationships between parents and children--whether they're human beings or nations.
Bluntly said, little Andrej Chalimon is the most charming and believable little kid I've ever witnessed on a movie screen (no processed tantrums or flagrant scenery-munching for him), Sverak the Elder is a splendid foil, and Kolya is, to my mind, the most engaging film of its type I've seen. Bring one hanky, perhaps, a working mind and a complete set of funnybones.
Screenplay by Zdenek Sverak. Directed by Jan Sverak. With Zdenek Sverak, Andrej Chalimon, Libuse Safrankova and Ondrez Vetchy.