From Russia with love

Kolya Jan Sverak (12)
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The Independent Culture
It's no surprise that Jan Sverak's Kolya, this year's Oscar winner in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, should be distributed by Buena Vista - in other words by Disney. It has a number of classically heart-warming elements and scenes: five-year-old licked on the nose by labrador puppy; five-year-old lost on the Underground, finally reunited with reluctant guardian; adult with poor values instructed in life's priorities by abandoned child.

If the film has rather more to offer than that, it's partly that the director's father, Zdenek, has written himself a rather juicy part as a Czech cellist in political disgrace, reduced to playing at funerals. Frantisek Louka, superficially a curmudgeonly figure, is in his own way an innocent, too, whose crime was simply to write "Same old shit, Comrade", on a form that asked him to give details of his conversations with emigres abroad. After that, his permission to travel was withdrawn and, as a result, he could no longer play with the national orchestra.

Kolya is set in Prague, 1988. Who would have thought that nostalgia could take root so quickly for the period before the Velvet Revolution? Nostalgia, admittedly, for a period of unsuspected transition, when the old certainties were already being eroded, but when it was still possible to blame the Russians for everything. A time when a man who had bought a second-hand Trabant and overtaken a chugging little train, could feel a thrill of pure satisfaction.

If the regime is at a dead end, and so is Louka, then there are a few consolations for the moribund. Louka's flat at the top of an apartment block is comfortable and even enviable, with its view of cathedral roofs and the constant harsh pizzicato of pigeons sharpening their beaks on the window sills. Even music-making at the crematorium has its cosy side - the musicians have half-empty bottles at their feet and, when the kettle boils at an inappropriate moment, Louka deftly flicks the whistle off with his bow. These crematorium scenes (the musicians call it the "Bakery") have a pleasingly paradoxical atmosphere.

Though Louka is 55, and has been forced to buy the house in the provinces where his mother lives, thanks to his brother's immigration - a purchase that has more or less bankrupted him - he isn't grown up enough to tell her about his fall from grace. When a malicious neighbour asks him in her hearing if he's still playing the cello to corpses, he improvises desperately: "That's what we call a concert audience that doesn't respond."

Louka can't afford that Trabbie (public transport is an ordeal for cellists) until he agrees to enter into a paper marriage with a Russian woman. The bride promptly emigrates to the West, leaving her son with an aunt who soon falls ill. So Louka has to take over, despite the disruption to his bachelor life. His dad always told him that music meant celibacy, a philosophy that Louka has quietly reformulated. Playing the cello means no strings - no other strings. Sex but no commitment.

The film-makers have pinned everything on their choice of (extremely) juvenile lead, compounding their difficulties by making the character - and consequently the performer - Russian, a stranger in a strange land. They've struck gold with Andrej Chalimon, who delivers all the required pathos and sweetness but brings a distinctive energy and commitment to the role. His body language seems unusually truthful, whether he's skidding in over-slippers down a corridor on a hospital visit, or being given rides on a shovel by Louka's gravedigger friends. At one point he is poleaxed by boredom, falling like a small tree on to the bed. Although these effects have been shrewdly calculated by the film-makers, Chalimon shows no sign of complicity with the camera.

Childhood is clearly not an absolute and international experience, but there are shared conventions about showing children on screen, their plasticity and resilience. It is interesting that, in Kolya, the representation of adults should travel less well. The sexual politics, in particular, are at an alarmingly low level by self-conscious Western standards. Early on in the film, Louka gooses the soprano at the "Bakery" while she is singing (worse, while she is singing Dvorak) in a way that is obviously meant to be endearing. At a later funeral, when he seems to have lost interest in harassing her, she keeps moving backwards towards him and half looking round, like a cow anxious to scratch on a fence post. This slightly awkward strand of the film is perhaps offset by an unselfconsciousness about childish nakedness similarly unthinkable in the West. In the films that Disney makes directly, children aren't displayed casually as Kolya is in the bath.

Clearing debris from the roof of his mother's house early in the film, Louka finds an ornate earring in the gutter. It's of no great value - 10 crowns maybe - but the question of how it got there nags at him. Was it thrown wildly away by a woman angry at the man who gave it to her? Did a magpie drop it? The director's father is an experienced writer, and he clearly means to foreshadow the chance appearance of Kolya, the human jewel in a gutter that may slyly represent Russia. Louka learns to value him.

The film ends both raggedly and neatly, without the pat conclusion that these two mismatched people need each other, but with a different happy ending waiting in the wings. By this time the Revolution has come, Louka can play with the Philharmonic again, and former secret policemen are anxiously rattling their keys in democracy rallies. The parts of Kolya that remain in the mind, though, are passages of affectionately seedy comedy, like the hollow wedding and its reception. The red carpet on which the couple walk has seen better days, like everything else, worn by the grooms' shoes on the left, pocked on the right by the high heels of a thousand bridesn

On release from tomorrow