Reteaming with Bodhan Slama for their fifth feature together, Zuzana Kronerova plunges into the title role in Ice Mother much as the character plunges into the Vltava River, with unselfconscious moxie. In this unsentimental story of a conventional woman’s late-in-life rebirth through romance and winter swimming, not necessarily in that order, Kronerova inhabits the role of Hana with an invigorating directness. And she has a terrific onscreen partner in Pavel Novy, as the winningly lusty geriatric swimmer who falls for the newbie to icy waters.
The writer-director’s affection for his older characters couldn’t be clearer. Looking askance at the younger generation, though, he paints with far broader strokes, making the movie’s family conflicts a bit too lopsided to be deeply involving. Yet despite its unevenness, the Czech filmmaker’s first feature in five years (after his Sundance debut, Four Suns) is bracing in its refusal to turn senior citizens into cute mascots for capital-L life.
In the low-key picture’s first glimpse of Hana, a widow in her late 60s, she’s shoveling coal into the ancient furnace of her chilly house — to no avail, according to her younger son, Ivan (Vaclav Neuzil). At their weekly family dinners, he never removes his overcoat, his comically fussy way of underlining his argument that the place is uninhabitable and should be sold tout de suite. He and his wife, Katerina (Tatiana Vilhelmova), are busy cosmopolitan professionals who leave their sensitive, barely communicative tween son (Daniel Vízek) to his video games. They’re also the closest the film comes to flat-out caricature. With his ostentatious gifting of virgin olive oil, and her demands about the organic pedigree of the vegetables being served, they’re a picture of familiar yuppie pretension and self-involvement — one that might feel fresher and more incisive for Czech viewers than for U.S. audiences who have been there, done that many times over.
Hana’s older son, Petr (Marek Daniel), almost too neatly represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Where Ivan rejects what he views as outdated, Petr has a fond attachment to the house, and to other vintage objects as well; a government employee with a perennial cash-flow problem, he works in a museum, surrounded by antiques, and squirrels away rare books that he buys with borrowed money. When his long-suffering wife, Vera (Petra Spalkova) — the only sympathetic grown-up in the story’s middle-aged quartet — voices concerns about food and shelter, Petr dismisses them as "superficial."
In a different way, Hana too is long-suffering, putting up with her selfish kids and carrying on family traditions, like the weekly dinners, that give her no joy or comfort. Her universe shifts one day while she’s babysitting her grandson, Ivanek. Walking by the river, she encounters a group of ice swimmers and dashes to the rescue of one who appears to be in trouble. She’s instantly welcomed into a circle of swimmers her age and older, free spirits who gather at the trailer that Brona (Novy), 70-ish, burly, intelligent and plainspoken, shares with his beloved pet chicken.
If Slama hits the movie’s familial tensions too squarely on the head, he finds a compellingly awkward friction in the reactions of Hana’s sons to her romantic involvement with Brona. Even better is the way the self-possessed Brona refuses to put up with their rudeness or assuage their meritless fears. Thoroughly convincing, too, is the way both Hana and Ivanek, a boy neglected at home and bullied at school, blossom in the warm bohemian embrace of the swimmers, and in the process grow close.
Even as he guides the action toward a redemptive resolution, Slama, whose early festival hits include The Wild Bees and Something Like Happiness, strikes intentionally dissonant chords. Most of the characters grow more complex as the story proceeds, and not everyone has a place in the movie’s hopeful ending.
Working with his regular director of photography, Divis Marek, the helmer favors naturalistic intimacy over cinematic stylization. The only conspicuous camera moves are Marek’s water-level views of Hana in her new element. They affectingly capture her short-lived trepidation and, more crucially, her delight, whether she's alone or hitting the very down-to-earth and welcoming competitive circuit.
Combining guardedness and openheartedness in unpredictable ways, Kronerova and Novy deliver exceptional performances, turning the crystal-clear metaphor of ice swimming into a full-blooded emotional experience. To his credit, Slama insists on his older characters’ physicality in a way that few filmmakers do, without apology or mawkishness. His straightforward approach extends to a candid sex scene between the two leads, one that’s touched with dark comedy as well as tenderness. He gives Hana a last laugh of sorts when she finds a practical use for the fancy olive oil from her disapproving son.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition)
Production companies: Negativ, Artleria, Why Not Productions
Cast: Zuzana Kronerova, Pavel Novy, Daniel Vizek, Marek Daniel, Vaclav Neuzil, Tatiana Vilhelmová, Petra Spalkova, Alena Mihulova, Marie Ludvíkova, Lubošs Vesely
Director-screenwriter: Bohdan Slama
Producers: Pavel Strnad, Petr Oukropec
Director of photography: Divis Marek
Production designer: Jan Vlasak
Costume designer: Zuzana Krejzkova
Editor: Jan Danhel
Composer: Marek Piacek
Sales: The Match Factory