ZELARY

 
Directed by Ondrej Trojan. Czechoslovakia. 2003.


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A deep and lasting love does not always fit our pictures and indeed can arise from the most unlikely circumstances. In Zelary, a Czech film by Ondrej Trojan, an abiding romance between a rugged sawmill worker and a sophisticated medical student emerges from the conflict in Czechoslovakia during World War II. Based on the autobiographical novel Jozova Hanule by Kveta Legatova, Zelary is about a young medical student who is forced to live in a remote mountain village in order to escape the Gestapo. It is a film that poignantly depicts the upheaval of war and how people had to call upon their hidden resources simply to survive. 

Set in May 1943 when the Germans, under the guise of a protectorate, occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Aliska (Ana Geislerova), a student in Prague, works as a nurse in a provincial hospital after the Nazis close the universities. As the film opens, she is having an affair with Richard (Ivan Trojan), a successful surgeon. Both are members of the Czech resistance movement along with their superior at the hospital. When a planned underground operation fails, Richard is forced to emigrate and Eliska is given a new identity and safe passage to live out the war in the mountain village of Zelary with Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), a patient at the hospital whose life was saved by Eliska's blood donation. 

It is clear from the outset that her adjustment to rural life will take time. Upon reaching the cottage after a long journey, she asks, "Where’s the yard?" "Everywhere", he replies, She has a hard time living in an area without electricity or plumbing and goats running freely but, given the alternative, she doesn't complain. Eliska, now known as Hana, is met with suspicion by the residents of Zelary who wonder where Joza found her, but she is eventually accepted when she agrees to a marriage of convenience with Joza and begins to integrate herself into the life of the community. At a length of 150 minutes, the film becomes an epic of Hana's gradual adjustment to rural life while living in daily fear of her discovery by the Gestapo. At first, she is reluctant to let Joza touch her but he gradually wins her trust with his gentle manner and she comes to rely on him as her means of protection. In one touching scene, he gently bathes Hana after finding her bruised and drenched in a violent rainstorm. 

While Zelary has its tender moments, it is not an idyllic romp through the Czech countryside. The village has its share of drunkenness, abusive husbands, and violent confrontations between parents and children and Hana has to learn to deal with them. In one subplot, the schoolteacher Tkac (Jaroslav Dusak), a strict disciplinarian, constantly berates a young boy named Lipka (Tomas Zatecka) who has problems at home. Lipka leaves the school and is forced to hide in a cave to escape his abusive stepfather (Ondrej Koval), aided only by his friend, Helenka (Anna Vertelarova), a five-year-old girl. As the war refuses to go away, both Hana and Joza have to deal with fear and sudden death, and they both become increasingly resourceful and self-reliant. Hana forms a strong bond with the local midwife, Lucka (Jaraslov Adamova) who teaches her about herbal remedies and allows her to help with the medical needs of the community, exacerbated by the sudden presence of voracious Russian troops. 

Zelary does not break any new ground and some of the minor characters are one-dimensional, yet the film reaches us on an emotional level because of its sincerity and disdain for sentimentality. Nominated at the 2003 Oscars for Best Foreign-Language Film, the film is greatly enhanced by the compelling performances of both Geislerova and Cserhalmi, a Hungarian-born actor who exudes both physical and emotional strength. Though I would have liked to learn more about Aliska before and after the war and how her experiences had changed her, Zelary succeeds by transcending limitations of time and place and speaking directly to the human heart.

GRADE: B+
 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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