Offered the choice between (a) watching a film about a cold, ageing, self-centred bachelor who is redeemed by suddenly having to care for a dewy-eyed little orphan boy and (b) having my sinuses drained, I would generally snarl, "Bah, humbug!" or "Chiz!" and look forward to breathing freely. But Jan Sverak's Kolya (12), which is just such a film, escapes the general curse - not by eschewing sentimentality, but by cutting its plentiful streams of syrup with earthier and more pungent flavours. Don't be put off by the fact that it took the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, an award which tends to be the cast-iron guarantee of a lame duck. For once, this is a film about redemption which redeems that most coercive of movie genres: the tear-jerker.

Set in Prague during the days leading up to the Velvet Revolution, Kolya has for its dour hero Frantisek Louka (Zdenek Sverak, in real life the director's father), a fiftyish former cellist for the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra who scrapes his living from the dead - playing at cremations, restoring tombstones. Describing himself as too dedicated to music ever to have married or sired a child, Louka seems to have few ambitions higher than paying off his debts, buying a second-hand Trabant and having the odd goatish fling with any woman foolhardy enough to yield to his unsubtle seduction techniques. It's not much of a life, but it passes as painlessly as many another shabby existence in the margins of a tyranny, especially since Louka resides in a garret so spacious and harmoniously proportioned as to provoke architecture envy in British flat-dwellers - an emotion, one suspects, not calculated by the film-makers.

Crisis and temptation change Louka's life at a stroke. Against his better judgment, he agrees to a marriage of convenience with a young Russian widow who wants Czech papers, in return for enough money to repair his mum's gutters - the film is ruefully acute on the pinched nature of life under Soviet rule - and purchase the car. Not a wise move. The bogus wife takes off for the West, leaving Louka to cope with her five-year-old son Kolya (Andrej Chalimon, a living, breathing, Slavic incarnation of that weeping boy in the ghastly picture you used to be able to buy at Woolworth's) and the baleful enquiries of the police, who aren't at all happy with his matrimonial decision. In the city of Kafka, secret policemen can be as imcompetent as they are sinister; the hard cop who leans on Louka threatens him with the loss of the orchestral job he's already lost, after an ill-judged witticism.

What follows is wholly predictable in content, remarkably original in nuance. Louka, initially impatient with his ward (who can't speak a word of Czech) goes through a number of mildly comic misadventures with the lad and slowly comes to love him, and so to take a different view of the Empire whose armoured trucks rumble through the streets, providing an ominous bass line for the lighter themes of this self-consciously musical film. Louka's progress has the potential to be truly emetic, but Sverak handles it with care, signalling the developing bond between man and boy with some unobtrusively sweet visual ideas (Kolya, seeing a pedestrian crossing sign depicting an adult and child, takes the hint and reaches up to hold Louka's hand) and some natty tricks with the viewer's expectations.

In the first half of the film, for example, we see Louka reach stealthily out with his bow to hike up a singer's skirt and ogle her legs; in the second, he seems to be repeating the lewd gesture precisely, until the camera slides laterally to reveal that his real intent is to tap Kolya on the back and warn him to be careful of falling from a balcony. In the first half, Louka phones up a married girlfriend to wheedle her into coming round and servicing him; in the latter, he uses the same phrases to coax her into telling Kolya a bedtime story in Russian.

Best of all, the film doesn't make a meal of Louka's partial humanisation. Sverak Snr plays him with nicely judged restraint, and his refusal to unbend more than is strictly necessary for the welfare of the child makes the tale a deal more moving than the touchy-feely nightmare it will be when Hollywood does the Anglophone re-make. (You read it here first; the name's Cassandra). What gives the film its real distinction, though, isn't the main plot about surrogate parenthood but the far more moving background story of national renewal for which it is a clear, but not insultingly blatant metaphor. My private roll-call of cinematic moments guaranteed to cause a lump in the throat - the English prisoner of war who sings "La Marseillaise" in La Grande Illusion, the fury and repentance of the priest at the end of Rome, Open City, the woman in Humphrey Jennings's Heart of Britain who talks about giving tea to the rescue crews during the blitz - has been swelled by a scene in the final reel of Kolya where the citizens of Prague, crammed into Wenceslas Square, salute their long-awaited delivery from the Soviet Union by merrily dangling their keys in the air. Reader, I wept.

Nothing else this week is in the same sphere, though if decent sentiments were enough to make a great movie, Rob Reiner's Ghosts from the Past would be headed straight for the pantheon with a bullet. But it's an earnest plodder and badly timed into the bargain. Its story is that of a fairly decent white southern lawyer (Alec Baldwin) who takes up the case of a black family (Whoopi Goldberg is the widow) victimised by white supremacists, and triumphs, thus bringing universal racial peace a step closer. Allowing for dramatic licence, this is the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, who managed to put the murderer of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers behind bars a quarter of a century after a jury of his peers (pasty-skinned bigots, that is) wilfully bungled their way to a mistrial.

Unfortunately, it is also the plot of dozens of other dramas about Dixie law, including the recent John Grisham cash-in A Time to Kill. Reiner, who made something more compelling of far sillier courtroom material in A Few Good Men, may have been censoring his instincts for (brilliant) showmanship from motives of respect, or perhaps he just couldn't find a way to give his raw material the right spin. Either way, the Devil has the best turn - Baldwin is bland, Goldberg almost spookily so, and the pair of them leave James Woods to snort, snuffle, sneer and just plain hog the screen behind a faceful of prosthetics as Bryon De La Beckwith, the octogenarian creep who shot Evers in the back and bragged about it to his pals in the Klan. Top marks to the wardrobe department, however: one glimpse of Beckwith's synthetic fibres and you just know he's in the pay of Satan.

For the rest: Anaconda (15), directed by Luis Llosa, is a pin-brained, virtually fun-free horror adventure about a boat-full of documentary film- makers, including - talk about racist attitudes - a twitty golf playing Brit (Jonathan Hyde), who set off down the Amazon in search of yet another Tribe That Hides From Man, only to be menaced by an enigmatic loony with a silly accent and a face lit from below (Jon Voight) and a pack of 40- foot killer snakes. There are no twists, it is child's play to guess which characters are going to be gobbled up and regurgitated, and the supposedly expensive computer-generated effects compare unfavourably with old- fashioned latex.

Written and directed by Pen Densham, executive producer of the new series of The Outer Limits, Moll Flanders (12), is a dog's breakfast of a film - glum, dumb and decidedly rum - which bears scantier resemblance to the well-known novel by Defoe than The Bonfire of the Vanities did to the well known novel by Tom Wolfe. Robin Wright is profoundly uninteresting as Moll, the foundling turned strumpet turned various other things, and the first 40-odd minutes of the film are so botched that it comes as something of a shock when things begin to gel into some semblance of a passable, sleeve- tugging yarn. Quite the best thing in this MF is another MF: Morgan Freeman, magnificent in frock coat and elegant dreadlocks.

Morgan, alas, is not so much as a distant relative of the title character from Crying Freeman (18), which boasts of being the first live action film based on a Japanese Manga comic - a distinction to which it is heartily welcome, considering that the result is a shatteringly tedious accumulation of slow-motion shootings, knifings, explosions, martial arts and cod mysticism. Strictly for buffs. (A word which, according to the OED, originally meant a sicko who turned up to watch fires).

Takeshi Kitano's Kids Return (no cert), on the other hand, a semi-autobiographical account of a couple of bone idle teenage morons who seek their respective fortunes in the boxing ring and the lower ranks of the Yakuza, warrants a good deal more respect, not least for the sequence in which our young anti-heroes fabricate an obscene, man-sized puppet, using a torch and two lightbulbs for the genitals. Reader, I tittered.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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