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A potent take on tradition in 'Zelary'

With effective writing, directing and acting, the Czech film proves a moving if conventional romantic drama.

September 17, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Zelary" is a film that provides all the old-fashioned pleasures and satisfactions of a Victorian triple-decker. Like one of those three-volume 19th century novels, it offers an experience we're happy to curl up with as it confidently unfolds.

One of the five nominees for last year's best foreign language Oscar, and nominated as well for 11 Czech Lions in its homeland, "Zelary" is triumphantly classical and well worth its 2 1/2 hours of screen time. It's a convincing romantic drama, written, directed and acted with so much skill it's able to break loose from its conventional moorings and become more effective, more moving than we anticipated.

Directed by Ondrej Trojan, who produced the marvelous "Divided We Fall," and written by Petr Jarchovsky working from an autobiographical novella, "Zelary" has elements in common with "Nowhere in Africa." Like that film, it follows the emotional journey of a woman who gets ripped out of her relatively comfortable life and thrust into a completely different place by the exigencies of World War II. Except in this case, the alien environment is not on another continent but instead close to home.

The young woman's name is Eliska (Ana Geislerova), and when we meet her in the spring of 1943 she is a beautiful, sophisticated nurse in Prague who's involved with a handsome doctor. One night, when the doctor is called in to treat a seriously injured sawmill worker from the Czech outback named Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), it's an emergency transfusion of her blood that saves Joza's life.

The war has derailed Eliska's medical school plans, but she compensates by becoming involved in the anti-Nazi resistance, something she views as a kind of dangerous game. All of a sudden, however, the game gets terribly real. Her resistance group is discovered and her life is in such imminent danger she has to leave the city without so much as returning home.

She is further told that the only safe course of action is to assume a new identity and return with now-recovered sawmill worker Joza to his back-of-the-beyond village of Zelary. And the mores of that place mean that she will have to marry Joza for the plan to work.

The main business of "Zelary" is the working out of the Joza-Eliska relationship. Though she is made to understand that should she flee she will be putting at risk not only her own life but the lives of everyone who's helped her, Eliska is understandably furious at having zero say in this area. There's also the fact that Joza, who looks as if he was carved from a nearby mountain, is shy and a bit awkward with words compared with the Prague sophisticates she's been used to. (Cserhalmi is a Hungarian with limited Czech language skills, which helps.)

But "Zelary" shrewdly sees to it that the audience understands well before Eliska that Joza is more than a diamond in the rough, he's practically a sawdust-covered saint, and a hunk to boot. This fantasy romance is, obviously, very much of a set-up job, but "Zelary" is so well made and the two actors are so completely convincing in their unlikely coupling that we are hooked for the duration.

One of the virtues of "Zelary's" length is that time spent with these people allows us to immerse ourselves completely in their world, to know the characters enough to never forget and really care about the intense danger they are always in. Pleasant as it is, "Zelary" is full of surprisingly emotional moments that are all the more potent for seeming to come out of nowhere.



MPAA rating: R for violence and some sexual content.

Times guidelines: Violence and brief nudity.

Ana Geislerova...Eliska

Gyorgy Cserhalmi...Joza

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Ondrej Trojan. Producers Ondrej Trojan, Helena Uldrichova. Executive producer Milan Kuchynka. Screenplay Petr Jarchovsky, based on the novella by Kvita Legatova. Cinematographer Asen Sopov. Editor Vladimir Barak. Costumes Katarina Bielikova. Music Petr Ostrouchov. Production design Milan Byeek. In Czech, Russian and German with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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