Kolya and Prisoner of the Mountain

17 Mar

R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 02/06/1997, B: Tom Meek,


Foreign correspondence

Kolya and Prisoner are moving tales of war

by Tom Meek

KOLYA. Directed by Jan Sverak. Written by Zdenek Sverak. With Zdenek Sverak, Andrej Chalimon, Ondrez Vtchy, Lilian Mankina, Iren Livanova, and Libuse Safrankova. At the Kendall Square.

PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS. Directed by Sergei Bodrov Sr. Written by Sergei Bodrov Sr., Arif Aliev, and Boris Giller. With Sergei Bodrov Jr., Oleg Menshikov, Jemal Sikharulidze, Susanna Mekhralieva, Alexei Jharkov, and Valentina Fedotova. At the Kendall Square.

During the first half of the 1990s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences developed a penchant for awarding the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to such lite romps as Mediterraneo and Belle Époque while slighting works with real integrity and depth, like Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine. In 1994, the Academy interrupted this trend of false merit when it bestowed the distinction upon Nikita Mikhalkov’s stirring masterpiece Burnt by the Sun. This year, with the submission of the Czech Republic’s Kolya and the Russian Prisoner of the Mountains, the Academy will have two more opportunities to atone for past miscues. 

Both films represent ventures in family filmmaking. Kolya is directed by Jan Sverak and stars his father, Zdenek, who also wrote the script. In Prisoner, Sergei Bodrov directs his son Sergei Jr., who makes his screen acting debut. But though each film is set against a politically tumultuous episode in Soviet history, they are worlds apart ideologically. The Sveraks’ full-circle story is a warmhearted exploration of the human spirit. Bodrov makes a passionate and politically unbiased case about the futility of warfare.

Bodrov’s taut contemplation is a loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s short “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which has been updated to the contemporary Russia-Chechnya conflict. It’s a minor tragedy that finds two Russian soldiers incarcerated by a Chechen patriarch with the hope he can trade them for a son who has been imprisoned by the local Russian guard. Yet the two soldiers are as foreign to each other as they are to their Muslim captors. Sacha (Oleg Menshikov, who was so subtly menacing in Burnt by the Sun) is the amoral propagator of war; Vania (Bodrov Jr.) is the reluctant recruit who has yet to fire his gun in combat.

As the terms for their exchange seesaw, it’s the wide-eyed Vania who becomes the pivotal player. He softens Sacha; he develops a fondness for his captors, especially the patriarch’s young daughter (Susanna Mekhralieva, who has Winona Ryder’s mesmerizing brown eyes). It’s these humanistic interactions that are crucial to the film’s argument, and Bodrov Sr. tenaciously establishes a poignant balance within each moment by setting Vania’s innocence and compassion against the imminent hostility of war.

Like Prisoner, the protagonists in Kolya transcend cultural barriers to touch the lives of others as they themselves become enlightened. The subject is a five-year-old Russian boy left in the care of a Czech musician on the eve of 1989’s Velvet Revolution, when Communism fell in the Soviet Union and the Russians pulled out of Czechoslovakia. It’s a predictable tale of parent-child bonding that works because of its deep-felt performances and tight direction.

Zdenek Sverak brings a majestic grace to his surroundings as Frantisek Louka, a down-on-his-luck middle-age bachelor in Prague. Once a revered cellist, he’s been ousted from the prestigious Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and now makes a pittance playing funerals at the city’s crematorium. Beyond music, Louka’s only pleasure comes from dalliances with other men’s wives. That’s why it’s such a piquant joy to watch him try to continue his freewheeling love life as he confronts the complexities of parenthood.

Financial pressures force Louka into a bogus marriage with a Russian beauty (a ravishing Irena Livanova), and through a series of fateful events, her son, Kolya (Andrej Chalimon), is delivered into his custody. At first their pairing is reluctant and strained by the political and linguistic incongruities between Russian and Czech, but they grow into a genuine father-son relationship that becomes blood-strong.

The on-screen chemistry between Sverak and Chamilon is what makes Kolya. Sverak’s performance fuels the film, but Chamilon gives it heart, acting beyond his years and the cute smirks and silly remarks usually assigned to most child actors — like the Brillo-head in Jerry Maguire.

The Sveraks and the Bodrovs have created handsome films (Pavel Lebeshev’s cinematography of Chechnya’s carved valleys is breathtaking) that are compelling portraits of humanity. Both render their final consequences in the wake of a momentous political transaction. Come March, one should strike Oscar gold. It’s just too bad there has to be a loser.


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