Czech Shoots Father, to Rave Reviews

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Ducking into a crumbling production office on a rainy Prague street, they don't look like two of the hottest European properties in the film world.

You couldn't tell it by their workplace -- a stuffy dark cave in the basement of an early 20th-century apartment building -- hardly enough room for the two of them amid stacks of film cans and mounds of remnants that didn't make the cut.

Still, life keeps getting brighter for the father-and-son team who have become the de facto storytellers of bittersweet Czech post-communist nostalgia.

Director Jan Sverak is 31 and wears "John Lennon" glasses, while his gray-bearded father, Zdenek, is screenwriter and star. Can we call Dad the "Czech Sean Connery" as so many do?

"Call [Connery] the American Zdenek Sverak," Jan says, explaining that Czechs never knew who James Bond was back in the days of the Cold War.

Together the two have won their second Oscar nomination for best foreign-language feature in five years with "Kolya," the story of an aging bachelor's reawakening when he takes an abandoned Russian boy under his wing on the eve of Prague's bloodless 1989 "Velvet Revolution." It is favored to win an Academy Award this month, after picking up Hollywood's Golden Globe in January.

Critics say the politically charged comedy-drama, which draws heavily on the decades of animosity -- and jokes -- Czechs had for occupying Russian forces, may be one of the region's best offerings since the Czech new wave of the 1960s.

The Sverak team made its first splash in 1992, when the postwar boys'-life drama-comedy "Elementary School" earned a first Oscar nomination, but lost. "When we had our first Oscar nomination we thought it would be the first and last time in our lives," says Jan.

Jan says he met an American scriptwriter in Hollywood four years ago who had been nominated 15 times but had never won an Oscar. "He is my example," Zdenek jumps in to say.

While "Kolya" is set at the end of the communist era, it is again a mix of personal and political turmoil, seen often through a boy's eyes.

After landing a deal with Miramax to distribute "Kolya," the Sveraks are working on an original English-language feature. The project is still a secret, while Zdenek finishes the script.

After a film, television and stage career that has made him one of the most popular personalities in the country since the early 1970s, Zdenek says he has no regrets that he did not defect to pursue his career like so many Czechs, including Oscar-winning director Milos Forman.

Jan, who came of age as a director after the revolution, says he will stay in Prague, despite offers to go abroad.

"This is the big advantage that we did not receive the Oscar for 'Elementary School' because I was so young and so hungry for American films. ... Now, I am not hungry any more, so we will make the European films," he says.

"There is no political reason to leave the country now, and there are possibilities to make films in Europe. So why leave the country?"

But can the Sveraks' magic translate into English-language success? "Kolya" has been selling out art houses in New York and on the west coast, but does everyone get it?

"I think that you can get 100 percent of the meaning of 'Kolya,' not 100 percent of the jokes," Jan says.

"I think the audience can catch the whole message, and not all the jokes unfortunately ... But the political background and our geographic situation -- that's part of this message," Zdenek replies.

The two Sveraks have a close father-son relationship, frequently boyishly embracing in a country where "macho" usually means never hugging or shedding a tear. "We are more friends than a father and son. We are very close characters. He has the same sense of humor as me, and we cry at the same parts of films," Zdenek says.

His son butts in to warn, "They think we cry every time we watch the film."

Awkward moments can sometimes occur when the son directs the father in love scenes.

In one shot, Zdenek revels in a post-amorous glow with the actress Libuse Safrankova, a woman Jan remembers most for her popular roles as a princess in many Czech fairy tales.

"The script says they just finished making love, and I have to explain to them that they have to breathe a bit, that they just can't lay there like they are resting ... and they have to touch each other ... this is bizarre," Jan says.

"Yes, bizarre," echoes his father.