Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Onrej Trojan
Stars: Anna Geislerova, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Tomas Zatecha, Jaroslava Adamova, Miroslav Donutil, Jaroslav Dusek, Iva Bittova, Ivan Trojan, Jan Hrusinsky, Ondrej Koval, Jan Triska, Juraj Hrcka, Edita Malovcic, Michael Hofbauer.
Produced in the Czech republic and gorgeously filmed in the Slovakia region (the same locations used for Cold Mountain), Zelary is an epic romantic drama set against the background of the holocaust. In exploring the unlikely but ultimately tender relationship that develops between an older man and a beautiful young woman in turbulent times, Zelary seems a bit like a Czech version of a David Lean film (Doctor Zhivago or Ryan’s Daughter, etc). The film also follows in the tradition of other superb Czech films like Kolya and Divided we Fall, which contained humanist messages and honest sentiment amidst often troubled and turbulent backgrounds.
Zelary follows Elishka (Anna Geislerova), a medical student in Prague who also works as a messenger for the resistance in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. One night she provides blood for a wounded mountain man Joza (Gyorgy Cserhalmi, a regular in the films of Istvan Szabo). When Elishka is forced to flee from the Gestapo, the resistance asks Joza to then hide her by taking her to his cabin in the remote village of Zelary. Elishka reluctantly agrees to marry Joza as part of her cover, but a bond develops between the crude, simple uneducated mountain man and the sophisticated educated Elishka as time passes. She slowly adapts to the gentle rhythm of life in a village where time seems to have stood still for a century.
The war never really seems to touch this rustic small village, but the inter-personal relationships, private jealousies and tensions provide plenty of drama. There is the constant threat of betrayal and suspicion. The film also builds some fascinating subplots about some of the village’s peripheral characters, like the lonely and troubled Lipka (Tomas Zatecha), and Lucka (Jaroslava Adamova), the crusty old midwife. But when the war ends and the Russian liberators move through the countryside, it is a time for settling old injustices, and tragedy and violence erupts.
Zelary is a sweeping, epic story about hope, the clash of cultures, love amid a time of war, and survival. It’s opening half hour is busy and occasionally muddled, but once Zelary hits its stride, it is a stylish and engrossing drama that seems free of the usual cliches and grandiose melodramatic elements that dog Hollywood productions of this ilk. Returning to films after a six year hiatus working in the theatre, veteran Czech director Onrej Trojan directs in a leisurely manner that allows the audience ample time to soak up the ambience and rhythms of this picturesque village and its daily life. The performances are honest and natural, and Asen Sopov’s cinematography is gorgeous and bathes the film in an almost postcard like quality.