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Daniela Kolarova and Zdenek Sverak in Empties.

3 out of 4 stars



  • Directed by Jan Sverak
  • Written by Zdenek Sverak
  • Starring Zdenek Sverak and Daniela Kolarova
  • Classification: 14A

Those cinephiles who rejoice in both charming foreign films and long memories will recall Kolya . The story of how a five-year-old Russian boy gets dumped on a grumpy bachelor cellist in Prague, the Czech film won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1996. Good news: The father-and-son team behind it is back with an equally likable offering in a rather similar vein.

This time, Jan Sverak directs his father Zdenek (who again wrote the script) as he plays another grumpy old guy in a film punningly entitled Empties . Sverak Sr. is Josef Tkaloun, an overstressed high-school teacher dismayed by the disrespectful youths he has to instruct. After an episode in which he wrings out the blackboard sponge over the head of one particularly obnoxious student, this twitchy grouch is forced into a frighteningly empty retirement. Realizing he can hardly sit at home watching his tight-lipped wife Eliska (Daniela Kolarova) cook and clean, he looks for another job and eventually finds his calling manning the bottle-return counter at a supermarket.

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Here, both his libido and his love for humanity re-emerge as he not only indulges his own romantic fantasies but also begins to meddle in the real world, matchmaking between his lonely colleagues at the bottle return and the various customers who come and go. His harmless plotting comes perilously close to home when, without informing either party of their connection, he sets up his own unhappily separated and born-again daughter (Tatiana Vilhelmova) with his former colleague, the amiable assistant headmaster Lada (Jiri Machacek).

The attraction of this optimistic film is the way in which the director begins the action in seemingly inevitable bleakness - the stupidity of adolescents, the boredom of retirement, the loneliness of being single and the frustration of being married - and gradually exposes its many characters to the light. His father echoes that journey with a performance that plausibly transforms Josef from misanthrope to humanist by revealing them as two sides of the same character: If Josef is cantankerous with the world, it is because he knows people are capable of more. Sverak's work anchors a cast that delivers a series of delicately executed performances as the actors bring to life a great range of lightly comic characters.

The illustration of Josef's aging but irrepressible libido takes the shape of an overly prolonged and largely unnecessary series of silly fantasy scenes in which he encounters the various other women in his life dressed up as a dominatrix ready to perform in the confines of a railway coach. The few shots of shoppers' thighs in gauzy skirts do the same trick without threatening to derail the whole film. The illustration of Josef's less passionate yet enduring love for his wife, on the other hand, is much more thoughtfully realized as the pair set off in a hot-air balloon in the imaginative sequence that ends the film.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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