ZELARY: (Czech Republlic, 2003) Directed by Ondrej Trojan. Written by Petr Jarchovsky, based on the autobiographical novella Jozova Hanule by Kveta Legatova. Produced by Ondrej Trojan and Helena Uldrichova. Cinematography, Asen Sopov. Editor, Vladimir Barak. Music, Petr Ostrouchov. Production design, Milan Byeek. Starring Ana Geislerova and Gyorgy Cserhalmi. Sony Pictures Classics, 2004. R. 150 minutes. Nominated 2003 Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film. Winner of Czech Lion, Best Actress, Ana Geislerova.
An unlikely romantic tale set during WWII in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Zelary opens in an unnamed city. Eliska (Ana Geislerova) and her lover, a doctor, meet after a day of work at the hospital, where she is a medical student. When he is called back to work, Eliska goes with him. The military roadblock they have to pass through on the way to the hospital is the only evidence of a warzone. Elilska’s presence turns out well for the patient, who has been injured in an accident at a remote sawmill and needs a transfusion, because she’s a blood match for him.
A few days later, the transparency of occupation is shredded. On a courier mission for the resistance, Eliska eludes a man following her, but she is shaken. The group she has been working with, which includes her lover and another doctor, has been discovered by the Gestapo. Overnight, Eliska’s life turns upside down. Her lover has left the country, and she must flee to the countryside with, of all people, the hospital patient she helped, Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi).
These scenes take place in a short time at the beginning of a long (150 minutes) film, which effectively means we are as baffled by the turn of events as the main characters, Eliska and Joza. She is in complete denial, riding out of a village in an open, horse-drawn cart, her red curls bobbing, wearing a skimpy, city dress and fashionable shoes. For his part, Joza is dazzled by her beauty. But fortunately for Eliska, Joza is a patient, kind man, a partisan who’s respected in his community.
Joza takes Eliska to the unpopulated high country, where the rest of the film unfolds. While the storyline follows the maturing relationship between the couple, which provides the viewer with emotional value, a variety of memorable characters are introduced. These include a darling, precocious goat girl and a wild boy, her playmate, both of whom are suitably anti-school rebels. The girl sings delightful, dirty ditties to her goat. Neighbor women — a bawdy, hard-drinking lot — have their own sorrows, but they try to help Eliska feel comfortable with them. An older woman, the area midwife and herbalist, has a great, crackling laugh. She recognizes Eliska’s special talents after watching her sew up Joza’s injured arm. A heroic dog completes the picture. These people are uneducated and coarse compared to Eliska, but the solidarity they live by is something she’s never known.
The film’s tension arises out of the human passions of those living in the isolated beauty of the mountains near the village of Zelary. But the threat from the Nazi practice of rewarding those who turn in their neighbors and executing those who protect them is always with them — a psychological warfare with exacting physical reprisals.
As a people who have never fought a war at home against foreign enemies, we can learn a lot about how people live through wartime deprivations yet still find a way to love and help one another. Knowing this may make us more compassionate toward those on whom our country inflicts harm. And it may be one more good reason to build community with our neighbors here and now.
Zelary opens Nov. 5 at the Bijou, with high recommendations. Despite narrative flaws that sometimes feel choppy, the film resonates with human possibility. Warm, naturalistic performances and stunning cinematography add to viewing pleasure.