Oscars: Czech Republic's 'Ice Mother' Solved an Existential Crisis

Courtesy of Filmrise
'Ice Mother'

A charming tale of a middle-aged woman's journey of self-discovery, the foreign-language Oscar entry was born out of the director's panic over his lack of inspiration.

A few years ago, Bohdan Slama had an existential crisis. The Czech writer-director didn't have any projects in the works, and money was running short. Worst of all, he felt like he had no stories left to tell. "I really felt empty. I was really depressed," he recalls. "I thought, 'Am I at the end of my filmmaking career?' "

He started jogging to cope with the stress, and one day, as he was running through the forest, it occurred to him that he might have to ask his parents for help. "In this moment, I started to see myself from the side of my mother," says Slama, 50. "I have a very nice relationship with her, and I started to think, 'I'm an adult' — at my age, in my career — and if I'm in trouble and I'm quickly asking my mother to help me, then I see myself as a very bad person. And suddenly the story came to me: a mother with two [adult] sons who are infantile … who are used to handling her like a slave. It started me thinking: 'Does she accept being a slave until the end of her life? Or is there a chance to make some revolt?' " And with that, Ice Mother was born.

FilmRise picked up the film for U.S. distribution, and it won an international screenplay prize at Tribeca.

The mother in the story is Hana, played by Slovakian actress Zuzana Kronerova. Her husband is dead, and she lives alone in the family villa. Her two self-involved sons have families of their own, yet they still expect her to cook and clean. Their narcissism threatens to tear the family apart, and its insidious effects are already on display in Hana's young grandson, Ivanek, who is following in his father's selfish footsteps.

"Narcissism is the biggest enemy to me, narcissism in society and even my own narcissism," says Slama. "It is killing human relations."

One day, Hana encounters some ice swimmers at a nearby river. (Cold-water swimming has a long history in the Czech Republic.) Intrigued, she decides to give it a try. Surrounded by new friends, she realizes she was starving for connection and fulfillment. She reclaims her confidence in the water.

"The paradox is that she gets freedom from the ice water," says Kronerova, who, ironically, was petrified of cold water before making Ice Mother. "I told Bohdan that maybe he could use another sport … or maybe there are some film tricks he could use," she says with a laugh.

But for Slama, it had to be ice swimming. He had just started to learn the sport and felt a deep connection to the water. So Kronerova began to train, and since making the film, both she and Slama have continued to practice ice swimming.

"When you are coming back [out of the water], it gives you a really unbelievable warm feeling, which makes you really happy, because it's warm from inside," says Slama.

And that's what happens to Hana, who rediscovers her own inner fortitude and joie de vivre. "The ice in her own heart," he adds, "through the cold, it warms."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.