"Kolya" is the kind of modest, humane movie that rarely arrives on American screens, unless one of the more adventurous film companies has the imagination to "counterprogram" it against the comedies and fantasies that take up most of the space in multiplexes these days.
In terms of current moviegoing habits, it has several strikes against it. First, the dialogue is in Czech with English subtitles. Second, there's little sex and no violence at all.
Third, the story goes beyond lightweight drama and easygoing humor - although there's plenty of these - to explore social and political realities that affect its characters in important ways. It therefore requires more active thought than the average big-budget blockbuster.
All this notwithstanding, "Kolya" is making a name for itself on the American scene. It was selected by the Czech Republic to compete for last year's Academy Award as best foreign-language film. Colorado's prestigious Telluride Film Festival presented its United States premire. And now, just after winning a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, it's enjoying a high-profile release from Miramax Films, a distributor willing to gamble on small non-American pictures.
Its arrival in theaters during the dead of winter is no surprise, since this is one of the few seasons when audiences may be so overloaded with ordinary fare that they'll reach out for something a little different. Those who do are in for a pleasant surprise.
The story centers on Louka, once a valued member of the Czech Philharmonic but now reduced to freelance cello gigs and occasional jobs restoring gravestones at the local cemetery.
Times are hard for most people in Prague - the year is 1989, with the Soviet Union about to topple and Czechoslovakia's own Velvet Revolution still in the future - and Louka is getting tired of his chronic poverty. For a fee, he agrees to give up his confirmed bachelorhood and marry a Soviet woman who wants to acquire Czech credentials.
What he doesn't expect is that his bride-of-convenience will immediately flee the country, leaving him to care for Kolya, her five-year-old son. What does he know about raising a little boy? Absolutely nothing, and he doesn't look forward to mastering the job.
On the surface, "Kolya" is a warm-hearted comedy about the most familiar kinds of human relations: friendship, parenthood, and the camaraderie of people who share a business or profession. It works delightfully on this level, presenting a wide variety of diverting characters and interesting plot twists.
Deeper down, "Kolya" illustrates the impossibility of drawing neat, reliable lines between the public and private spheres in today's complicated world. Everything about Louka's home life is influenced by social and even political events, from the international pressures that influence his "wife" to the domestic policies that lead Czech authorities to challenge his rights as a stepfather.
Adding more spice is the fact that Louka has a typically Czech prejudice against the Soviets who have occupied his nation since their invasion in 1968. By birth, little Kolya is one of those Soviets, and a gift he brings to Louka is a reminder that the deepest values - like family love and responsibility - are more resilient than the geopolitical gyrations that sometimes seem to get in their way.
Itself a family affair, "Kolya" was written by Zdenek Sverak, who also plays Louka, and directed by Jan Sverak, his real-life son. The cinematography is by Vladimir Smutny, who started shooting the film on the 27th anniversary of the Soviet invasion. He artfully captures the melancholy beauty of a city that has faced more than its share of difficulties over the past three decades.
Much of the music is derived from Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvork, and Dvork's setting of the 23rd Psalm is the movie's unofficial theme.
* 'Kolya' has a PG-13 rating. It contains very brief nudity, implied sex, and a little vulgar language.