At the beginning of the beguiling "Kolya," a middle-aged bassist (Zdenek Sverak) is slyly lifting the skirt of his colleague with his bow as she's singing "The Lord's Prayer." They are part of a quintet of musicians who perform at funerals at Prague's vast Art Deco municipal crematory.
Sverak's Louka is a happy-go-lucky, trim, middle-aged bachelor, once with the Czech Philharmonic, who lives in a picturesque garret with great views of the ancient heart of the city. His standard line, practiced mainly with married women, is to pick up a phone and say, "I suddenly felt lonely, and who do you think I thought of?" Deeply cynical about Czech society and politics, especially as Russian tanks commence rolling in at the advent of Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution, Louka is determined not to take life too seriously.
Still, he does need a new car, which leads him to agree, for a price, to marry a pretty young Russian woman in order for her to gain Czech citizenship. But no sooner does the transaction take place than she's off to Germany to join her lover, leaving Louka with her 5-year-old son, Kolya (Andrej Chalimon).
You can pretty much take it from there: the nonchalant Louka suddenly thrust with the responsibility for a bright, adorable child whom he comes to love like a son--and who calls him "Daddy." We've seen this sure-fire, heart-tugging kind of comedy many times over, but Sverak, who also wrote the script, and his director-son Jan, really know how to give it that warm, ironic Mittel Europa charm and subtlety, with a dash of wry political satire.
"Kolya" is a crowd-pleaser like last year's "Il Postino (The Postman)," and the Sveraks, whose "Elementary School" was a 1991 best foreign film Oscar nominee, play with your emotions with such finesse and shrewdness that you can only admire their skill and go along with them. They never go too far, and they know how to use the tumultuous time in which their story is set to give it edge and poignancy. Members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. apparently thought so too, awarding the film the Golden Globe for best foreign language film; "Kolya" is also the official Czech Oscar entry.
Chalimon is irresistible, and the deft Zdenek Sverak is surely going to score extra points with older audiences simply for showing how attractive a man at 55, silver-haired and bearded, can be. With the further pluses of luminous cinematography and a soaring, emotional score, "Kolya" can't miss.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sensuality. Times guidelines: The film has some lovemaking and mild sexual innuendo.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Zdenek Sverak: Frantisek Louka
Andrej Chalimon: Kolya
Libuse Safrankova: Klara
A Miramax presentation. Director Jan Sverak. Producers Eric Abraham and Sverak. Screenplay Zdenek Sverak. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutny. Editor Alois Fisarek. Costumes Katerina Holla. Music Ondrej Soukup. Production designer Milos Kohout. Set designer Karel Vanasek. In Czech and Russian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500; the Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202.
* ALL IN THE FAMILY
Star Zdenek Sverak and his director son Jan are happy collaborators. F22