Dir: Ondrej Trojan. Czech Republic. 2003. 150mins.
Ondrej Trojan, the producer of Czech hits Divided We Fall and Pupendo, returns to directing with Zelary, a sweeping World War II story set in a remote mountain community where a resistance worker takes refuge from the Nazis. One of those lilting, long films which slowly seduces the viewer with its gentle pace and rural rhythms, Zelary is both touching romance and powerful wartime story set against breathtaking natural landscapes. It will have warm receptions at film festivals and its epic scale will make it a solid arthouse title in the marktplace.
This year's Czech submission for the foreign language Academy Award paints the same sort of brutal portrait of life during war which can be seen in American Civil War story Cold Mountain. Death at the hands of either side - Nazis or allies - is ubiquitous and random, and life is cheap. Key characters are casually slain and, like Cold Mountain, the love story at the film's heart ends in tragedy. It's the new cinema of war: uncompromising and heartbreaking.
Zelary is an untold story of that terrible time in the region and it doesn't unfurl as you expect it to. Kicking off as an all-too familiar city-set Nazi resistance story, it becomes a fish-out-of-water tale with moments of humour and pathos before ending in a full-fledged bloody saga of survival.
The film begins in an unnamed Czech city as a young nurse makes love to her surgeon lover. It quickly emerges that the two of them are caught up in the local resistance movement against Nazi occupiers. We see the nurse Eliska (Geislerova) pursued by a Nazi agent as she walks on foot to deliver a letter and narrowly escape capture, and we see her as she assists in an operation at the hospital in which she gives blood to a man from a rural mountain district who has serious arm injuries.
Shortly afterwards, the group is torn apart and her lover flees the country. Eliska is instructed to hide out in the mountains with Joza (Cserhalmi), the patient whose life she saved, and pose as his wife.
Horrified at her new predicament, Eliska begins the journey to Zelary, the tiny mountain community where Joza lives. There takes on the name of Hana, marries Joza to avoid suspicion and begins a life of rural struggle to which she is a newcomer.
Gradually, she becomes used to the harsh weather conditions and hardships she is forced to endure and slowly falls in love with Joza, the man on whose stability and strength she comes to depend. The local community with a notable exception accept her without question or suspicions, but ironically when the war comes to a close, it is the Russian liberators who bring carnage to the mountains.
The film's pace is anything but fast, and the lack of dramatic momentum in the central section as Eliska/Hana settles into Zelary is a weakness, although it picks up dramatically in the breathless final half hour. As the drunk and trigger-happy Russians start shooting at the villagers, who in turn assemble in a secret hideout, Joza goes searching for missing vilagers. The images of senseless killing against the backdrop of such natural splendour are the film's best and end the small personal stories of the village with an explosion of violence.
Prod cos: Total HelpArt THA Film Company in cooperation with Barrandov Studios and Czech Television
Int'l sales: Menemsha Entertainment (1) 310 712 3720
Exec prod: Milan Kuchynka
Prods: Ondrej Trojan & Helena Uldrichova
Scr: Petr Jarchovsky based on the novella by Jozova Hanule by Kveta Legatova
Cinematography: Asen Sopov
Prod des: Milan Bycek
Ed: Vladimir Barak
Music: Petr Ostrouchov
Main cast: Ana Geislerova, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Jaroslava Adamova, Miroslav Donutil, Jaroslav Dusek, Iva Bittova, Ivan Trojan