Directed by Ondrej Trojan. Starring Ana Geislerová, György Cserhalmi, Jaroslava Adamová, Miroslav Donutil, Jaroslav Dusek, Iva Bittová. (2003, R, 150 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 5, 2004
Life during wartime is always difficult, but never more so than when you're in love. Rick and Ilsa's rocky, war-torn romance aside, love and war often become love and death by film's end, and exploration of this ultimately universal theme has always been a favorite subject for filmmakers, who tend to insert lots of shots of huge passenger trains arriving in a steaming cloud beside tides of refugees, prisoners, or both. Czech filmmaker Ondrej Trojan's Zelary has just such a scene as well, but instead of using it as a harbinger of doom, the train station seen here is a metaphorical riff on the possibilities of upheaval and unexpected turbulence. It's not despair he's interested in (although there's plenty of it edging about the sides of the frame), but instead hope, transformation, and love. Zelary – a lengthy (150 minutes) overture to the opposites-attract school of romance – makes it look easy. The willowy Geislerová plays Eliska, a member of the Czech underground resistance during World War II. As the film opens, we see her making love with her urbane physician boyfriend, who is also a member of the resistance. Afterward, he rushes to the operating room to save the life of the peasant villager Joza (Cserhalmi), who’s suffered a near-deadly sawmill accident. Eliska is pressed into donating blood for the injured and unconscious man, but he exits her mind as quickly as her corpuscles enter his bloodstream. It's only later, however, in the wake of a botched underground mission and with the Gestapo closing in on all sides, that Eliska can appreciate the irony of her new situation: She's hustled out of Prague and into the Czech countryside along with the hulking, taciturn Joza. In order to hide her identity (and perhaps save the lives of her compatriots in the underground) she must marry this backwards-seeming fellow, all scars and elbows compared to her cosmopolitan sass. It should surprise no one that this hurried move and marriage eventually turn into a full-bloom love story as Eliska adapts to the rustic ways of her new life – no electricity or plumbing, and plenty of goats roaming free – and falls for the big ox despite his hideous table manners. The tiny hamlet, Zelary, may appear idyllic, but it also harbors its own dark undercurrents, which range from wife- and child-beating to an indifferent priesthood and doubt about the looming war. Trojan shoots all this epic wartime romanticism in a rich, sweeping style that makes you want to purchase a Eurail pass as soon as you exit the theatre, if only to track down Cserhalmi, whose near-wordless performance as the hulking Joza is one of the many miraculous details that helped net the film a 2003 Oscar nod for best foreign film. A wartime romance with only the briefest glimpse of the enemy is rare (and the lone Gestapo agent we see appears to have wandered in from Raiders of the Lost Ark), but adeptly pulling off an improbable love story like this is rarer still. By the time it's over you find yourself wondering why more films don't have the chutzpah to delve deeper into the battle-weary heart.