Free to look back at Russian occupation Director: Independence isn't the sole driving force behind Czech filmmaker's 'Kolya.' There's also nostalgia. Looking back makes today even better, he says.

March 13, 1997|By David Rocks | David Rocks,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE -- For many, working in close quarters with a parent might sow little more than ulcers or insanity. For Czech director Jan Sverak, collaboration with his father has borne much sweeter fruit: two Academy Award nominations.

"He has a different personality than I do," Sverak says of his father, Zdenek, who wrote and starred in the younger Sverak's acclaimed film "Kolya."

"He's more patient, maybe because of age, and I'm more aggressive, so that's why we can somehow be more compatible. ... My creativity is visual and his is verbal, and that goes very well together, so we are not fighting."

"Kolya" was nominated last month for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and in January won a Golden Globe in the same category.

The story of a Russian boy reluctantly adopted by a Prague musician who detests anything Soviet, "Kolya" has also garnered wide praise at film festivals from Venice to Telluride.

Set just before the "Velvet Revolution" that brought down communism, the film shows the warming relationship between 5-year-old Kolya and the musician, Frantisek Louka (played by Zdenek Sverak). Louka is a down-on-the-heels cello player who has been thrown out of the Czech Philharmonic for political reasons, and now makes his living serenading funerals at the local crematorium and painting gold leaf on gravestones.

In exchange for enough cash to dig himself out of debt, Louka agrees to marry a Russian woman who wants Czechoslovak citizenship. Just days after the arranged marriage, the "bride" flees to her lover in Germany, leaving her son, Kolya, in the incapable hands of Louka, who would rather spend his time seducing younger women than baby-sitting a kindergartner.

The film has been a smash hit here, with twice as many tickets sold last year as the No. 2 box office draw, "Independence Day." Jan Sverak attributes the film's success to a nostalgia for a simpler era, when Czechs had more time for each other and spent less of their day worrying about making a living.

"It's like you're opening an old family album and see the pictures and how you looked when you were younger," Sverak says in his lightly accented English.

Indeed, much of the film is shot in deep golden hues that highlight what Sverak calls the "warmth of relationships" during the period. But it also has a sharp message of anti-Soviet, Czech nationalism, which strikes a chord here as well.

"It works with the Russian element, which is all the time deep in our minds," he says. Today "we are talking all the time about the West and building capitalism, and no one cares about the past times anymore. So open it again, talk about it and show it in a funny way, that you are exchanging the roles. The more powerful is the Czech and the weaker is the Russian, the representative of the occupants."

Ironically, although Sverak is far from a communist, he seems to have a deep nostalgia for those simpler pre-revolutionary days. He wistfully says that he and all of his friends now have mobile phones but are too busy to use them to call each other.

Without the political changes, Sverak says, he would not likely be a feature film director today; before the revolution, he studied documentaries because of the greater freedom afforded that domain.

Nonetheless, he says growing up in the Czechoslovakia of the 1960s and 1970s allowed him to develop stronger directorial skills than he could have growing up in today's Czech Republic. While only a handful of American films made it into Prague theaters in his youth, they were the best ones.

"The culture for us was forbidden, so we were hungry for this culture," Sverak says. "We were not viewing the films as consumers, but we were explorers, so somehow I think that the relationship to the culture was deeper."

At just 32, Sverak is no stranger to the Academy Awards. His first feature, "Elementary School" -- also written by and featuring his father -- was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1991, but did not win. And "Oil Gobblers," a short film he made in 1988, earned him a student Oscar in the same category.

Although Sverak lists Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock as his two main influences, he has a relatively low opinion of the American movie industry.

"If American films were better, we wouldn't be able to make such a great success" with "Kolya," Sverak says. "Thanks to all the American films that are all the same, 'Kolya' won in the eyes of the audience. The Czech audience, they don't want to eat the same thing all the time."

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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