In Ice Mother (Czech: Bába z ledu), the latest film from director Bohdan Sláma (Štěstí), a doting grandmother and widow takes a literal dive into the Vltava river after a chance encounter with some winter swimmers, a group of senior citizens who take to Prague’s near-freezing waters of during the chilly winter months.
It’s a surprisingly touching comedy-drama that veers more to the dramatic than most Czech films in this genre, detailing a side of old age that we don’t often get to see at the cinema.
One sequence in particular – a no-holds-barred sex scene between two seniors that recalls Last Tango in Paris in its use of kitchen products – is bound to draw reaction from audience members who don’t know whether to laugh or cringe.
But Ice Mother is an incisive look into the life of Hana (Zuzana Kronerová), who lives alone after the death of her husband, as well as her young grandson Ivan Jr. (Daniel Vízek), who is bullied at school and ignored at home, and takes refuge in grandma’s arms.
Hana is already an ‘ice mother’ before she ever dives into the Vltava, both in literal and metaphorical senses: she lives in a family home with a faulty coal furnace unable to keep it warm, and is largely neglected by her spoiled children, who turn to mom for practical necessities rather than love.
One son, the successful Ivan (Václav Neuzil, who played one of the Czech paratroopers in last year’s Anthropoid), wants mom to sell the family home so she can move closer to them and serve as housemaid for his ice-queen wife (Tatiana Vilhelmová); the other (Marek Daniel), uses mom’s home to hide his vice (antique books) from his hard-luck wife (Petra Špalková) and repo men.
With the exception of Špalková’s sympathetic presence, each of these characters is contemptible in their treatment of Hana. So when she and her grandson, struggling with his own issues, stumble upon the friendly, down-to-Earth polar bears, they see a potential escape.
The ice swimmers include Brona (Pavel Nový), a towering presence often glimpsed in a tiny black speedo, who comes to serve as a grandfather-figure for young Ivan and a romantic interest for the Hana. But Brona’s gruff presence comes to clash with Hana’s refined dysfunctional family, and he has his own past that he’s been running from.
Among a strong cast, Kronerová and especially Nový thrive in roles that contain unusual depth and nuance for senior citizens, typically cast as background scenery or comic relief in most mainstream movies.
We can see why: at this stage in life, there are no easy answers for character haunted by the ghosts of the pasts. While Ice Mother is rife with subtle drama, clear resolution is much harder to come by.
Writer-director Sláma mines the material for all its worth, and comes away with a consistently engaging (if somewhat low-energy) drama with some dark comedic overtones. Ice Mother works best as a culture-clash kind of affair, but the film has more to offer bubbling beneath the surface.
It’s the first feature film in five years for the director, who previously made Four Suns in 2012, The Country Teacher in 2007, and Something Like Happiness in 2005. Those latter two are also well worth catching.
Ice Mother is currently playing throughout Prague cinemas, including in an English-subtitled version at select venues (Kino Světozor and Kino Pilotů). In April, it will premiere internationally at the Tribeca film fest in New York.