(Czech with English subtitles)
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.
Our content rating (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex 5/ Nudity 0.
Our star rating (0-5): 5
NOTE: Once again, I am featuring this wonderful film on my Visual Parables front page in 2014. The film is available on video streaming services and even purchasing the DVD via Amazon is relatively inexpensive.
Director Jan Sverak’s film of transformation and reconciliation focuses upon the personal, but when seen against the backdrop of recent Czech-Russian history, we realize that it is more than just the story of a man and a boy. Their story is told so fetchingly that that would have been a treat in itself.
Frantisek Loucka is a middle-aged womanizing cello player. His regard for children equals that of W.C. Fields. He has been kicked out of the prestigious Czech Philharmonic Orchestra because of an off-hand political remark and is now reduced to performing with an ensemble at crematorium memorial services and in gilding the letters of tombstones. All this changes when he reluctantly agrees to enter into a phony marriage with the niece of a gravedigger, he being in debt to the latter. The woman is a young Russian mother who does not want to return to her native land. Loucka will be paid enough money to buy a car and pay off much of his large debt.
The woman is beautiful, so Loucka intends to make the marriage real, but she has other ideas. She slips off to Germany to join her lover. Her son Kolya is left behind, and when his guardian dies, guess who winds up with the six year-old boy? Neither is pleased. But when Kolya sees the Russian flag Loucka’s landlady has made him displayed in the apartment window for a political rally, the boy thinks it was done for him, and his reserve begins to melt.
Over the days, despite the boy’s presence interfering with his love life, Loucka begins to warm toward the boy as well. However, by now the police are grilling him about his hasty marriage and the flight of his wife. And a social worker, responding to a letter he had written before becoming emotionally involved with the boy, shows up to begin an investigation that could result in Kolya being sent back to Russia.
1. Loucka, now terribly attached to Kolya, sits up nights with the boy when the latter becomes deathly ill. Karla comes to add her special knowledge in caring for the fever-wracked boy. Looking at Loucka’s worried face, she says that she didn’t know that he could rise above his selfishness and care so much for another. He replies, “Neither did I.”
2. Loucka trying to convince his mother, who lives in the country, to take in Kolya. Like most Czechs, she hates Russians, so her son lies, claiming that he is from another country. Her suspicions are confirmed when Kolya runs outside to talk with two Russian soldiers repairing their broken down vehicle. Not only does she refuse to shelter the boy, but also when the soldiers, both barely beyond their teens, knock on her door and politely ask if they can wash their grease-stained hands, she declares that their plumbing is broken. The puzzled soldiers politely leave. So skillfully drawn is this scene that we sympathize with these two lads far from home, even though we know that they are part of an occupation force. And of course, little Kolya completely wins our hearts, so that we come to regard the mother’s patriotically motivated hostility to him as unnecessarily cruel. The filmmaker helps us to see the humanity within all peoples, oppressor, as well as oppressed, something rarely achieved in film! The same spirit that motivates Nelson Mandela to reach out to his former oppressor in order to bring reconciliation to his broken society also animates director Jan Sverak, may he live long to produce more such insightful films. Can this spirit, even though the director uses no overtly religious language — oops, I forgot the 23rd Psalm! — be anything less than Holy Spirit?
3. About that 23rd Psalm. We hear this at the beginning of the Psalm, sung by Karla, who finally becomes Loucka’s lover. Loucka’s lifting her skirt from behind with his cello bow stands in stark contrast to the sentiment of David’s Psalm. In the middle of the film we hear the Psalm again, this time recited by Kolya as he draws the coffins entering the furnace. He has accompanied Loucka when the latter has played his cello, so the Psalm for the little boy has become a mantra of death, reflecting the isolation and sense of abandonment that he feels. But after love has blossomed between him and Loucka, transforming both their situations, the Psalm, at the end of the film, regains its sense of faith, trust and affirmation of life.
Reprinted from the May 1997 issue of Visual Parables.