After many years that Czech film-making spent in the wilderness, Kolya was the first film in a long time that acheived international recognition. Why is this? Do you think the success of the film is justified? Discuss.
In 1996 Jan Svěrák's Kolya won the Czech Lion 96 Award from the Czech Film and Television Academy, the Golden Globe Award from the American Foreign Press Association as well as the American Film Academy’s award for Best Foreign Language Film. After years of Czech films’ virtual nonexistence in the international movie business, Kolya's success came as a surprise and a reminder of the fantastic Czech cinematic achievements of the 1960s. However, the only thing Kolya had in common with those earlier Czech works was its success. What made it such a hit? What did the critics see in Kolya that they missed in other Czech films? In this essay I will examine why Kolya received international recognition and whether its success was justified.
Why did Kolya get international recognition?
There is no doubt that Kolya was a well-written, well-directed, well-filmed and well- acted film, but it is by no means the only Czech film of the 1990s to meet those criteria. Indeed, two of Jan Svěrák's previous films, Obecná kola and Jízda, met the same qualifications, not to mention the films of other Czech directors. Obecná kola was even nominated for the 1992 American Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category. It tells the story of a boy growing up in the Bohemian countryside in the tradition of The 400 Blows. The film is beautifully done and deserves a place in the ranks of world cinema. Nevertheless, it failed to gain much international attention; its following remains confined to art house cinema-goers. With Kolya Svěrák took a new approach to film, and that explains the film’s success.
Kolya tells us the story of the dissatisfied bachelor Louka who has been demoted to playing cello at funerals after saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in pre-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia. Louka supplements his cello playing by touching up gravestones and bedding other men's wives. His grave-digger friend (appropriately for his profession perhaps) convinces Louka to take part in a sham marriage with a Russian. After the marriage Louka's new spouse goes West to be with her boyfriend, while Louka eventually ends up stuck with her little boy. As expected Louka is forced to defend himself against the StB, who recognize that the marriage is a fake. The initial antipathy between the Louka and Kolya is overcome in the course of the film, while Louka and Klara, one of his part-time mistresses, deepen their relationship. Just when it seems that the Social Services’ paní Zubatá is going to have Kolya put in an orphanage, the communist regime obligingly collapses. Kolya's mother comes back for him, and Louka is reinstated to his former position in the orchestra at the same time that he has made Klara pregnant (and presumably the two have fallen in love).
What made Kolya so special?
It appealed to a broad audience. The background of Prague in 1989 and the fact that the film came from a country known in certain circles for cinema assured its attraction to art house moviegoers, though this point has little relevance for explaining its massive popularity. More to the point, Kolya's success can be attributed to its adherence to the formula of a Hollywood film. The Svěráks gave us a sentimental story which avoided being overly sappy or too cute. There was the obligatory romance, the fight between good and evil (Louka the good versus the StB and the Social Services), and the happy ending. Also, the fact that one of the two main characters was a cute little boy certainly added to the film's appeal. It is well known that children and animals are two of the most trusted devices for selling products.
In the past ten years five of the films to win the American Academy's Best Foreign Language Film Award have featured children in main roles. Furthermore the film was faithful to the Hollywood formula in that it did not leave the audience with unresolved questions or disturbing messages; it was a feel-good movie.
However, if we examine the conflicts in the film, we can see that though Svěrák employed the Hollywood formula for a heart-warming’ family film, he slipped in a deeper meaning not necessarily present in the conventional Hollywood film. There were four main points of tension in Kolya which illustrate Svěrák's message. Firstly, we have the difficulties between Louka and Kolya and between Louka and Klara (or more generally, Louka’s search for a partner), problems of an individual and personal nature. In the process of the film both tensions are resolved; Louka and Kolya warm to each other and Louka and Klara become a couple. The second set of dilemmas are the institutional conflicts, that is, Louka's problems with the StB and with paní Zubatá, and the picture is quite different.
These problems are portrayed as being virtually unresolvable by individual effort. Louka concludes that fleeing the country is the only option available. Eventually the problems disappear by themselves with the collapse of the regime. Svěrák's message is that conflicts between individual can be overcome, while institutional ones cannot be satisfactorily dealt with; or put more simply the individual takes precedence over the institution.
Kolya also departs from the Hollywood model by avoiding portraying its characters in a purely black and white manner. We see this in the questioning of the widespread Czech damnation of the Russians: after having a strong antipathy to Russians in general, through his relationship with Kolya, Louka comes to the conclusion that they are not all bad.
The StB men too, are shown jangling their keys at the demonstration on Václavské náměstí. They wave to Louka, indicating that they are in some way supportive of the changes. They have not changed from bad guys into good guys, but rather they have been revealed as being more complicated than the typical villains. Perhaps they are merely opportunists, but in any case, we are shown that nothing is as apparent as it may first appear.
Is Kolya's success justified?When is a film's success justified? When it is well-written, well-directed, well-filmed, well-acted and ground-breaking. A film may have the first four qualities but still be ultimately forgettable if it does not explore new territory. It may challenge the viewer aesthetically, such as Godard's Weekend, or intellectually, like Louis Malle's My Dinner with André, or both, as in the films of Fellini and Antonioni. In those cases the medium of film is employed to deal with universal and/or significant themes in a provocative or thoughtful manner. Singin' in the Rain was neither aesthetically nor intellectually challenging, but it marks the apogee of the Hollywood musical genre, with hysterically funny comedy, fantastic dancing and delightful songs; in that sense it was ground-breakingly’ entertaining.
Where does Kolya fit into this definition of fine cinema?
Kolya is not aesthetically or intellectually challenging. Nevertheless, it is not a meaningless bit of fluff either. It does have a universal message aside from being a ‘feel-good’ movie. The fact that Svěrák managed to do that at the same time that he created a well-made film with broad appeal deserves recognition, and that is what he got. On the other hand, Svěrák's message is a throwback to communist times when the regime inspired little confidence in its citizens, causing them to develop separate public and private lives devoid of overlaps; Czechs retreated to their chatas on the weekends in the era after the Warsaw Pact invasion. Kolya illustrates the sense of helplessness in the face of authoritarian structures, but it does not go beyond that.
Kolya's hero, Louka, arrives at the ready-made Revolution; he does not help to make it himself. The happy ending after the Revolution does nothing to alter this message. Passivity and conformity in the face of daunting obstacles is the overwhelming impression left by Svěrák. Furthermore, this message is so well hidden in the mires of the Hollywood model, that it is virtually inaccessible. If the director had wanted to subvert the model, he did so in such an oblique way that it is imperceptible. He was not trying to attack the Hollywood film though. Kolya was meant to be a purely entertaining film, not one loaded with deep meanings. It achieved international recognition because of its faithfulness to the Hollywood model. The fact that the film is intellectually and aesthetically conformist and even verges on being superficial leaves its success unjustified. It failed to break new ground.
It is to Svěrák's credit that he could employ the Hollywood family film formula to produce the first Czech film in years that received worldwide praise. Ultimately though, Kolya neither poses a challenge to the viewer, nor enriches the world of film. Kolya is a forgettable film whose main redeeming quality is the attention that it has thrown on Czech film and the benefits that that may yet result in.