It’s Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1943. The Gestapo of the invading Third Reich is everywhere, eyeing every Czech who walks without downcast eyes. Eliska (Czechoslovakian Anna Geislerova, Little Scars) is a beautiful, fashion-conscious nurse whose dream of becoming a doctor has been thwarted, since the Germans closed the nation’s medical schools. Eliska, her surgeon lover and her doctor friend are involved in the Czech resistance, but since she is far from the gory battlefields, both the war and patriotic resistance seem little more than a game to her.
One night, a badly injured middle-aged sawmill worker, Joza (Budapest-born Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Csjok), is rushed into the hospital for emergency surgery and Eliska is called upon to donate blood. As she lies beside the man, her blood flowing through a tube into his ailing body, a wordless connection is created between them.
A few days later, the Gestapo infiltrates their cadre of resistance members. Eliska’s lover emigrates without a farewell, and she is in immediate peril, so Joza agrees to help her disappear. With a forged passport, Eliska becomes Hana, a totally new person, and flees to Joza’s humble shack in a remote mountain community. The escapees are a strange pair: She has unmistakable city clothes and aristocratic good looks, while he’s roughhewn, plainspoken and lumbering through life like a lonely bear.
Rural Zelary is a place that progress forgot, existing much as it did 150 years before. There are no paved roads and no electricity or indoor plumbing. Nature, in its regular cycles, as well as its unpredictable majesty and harshness, replaces the rhythm of the watch-watching city.
The farmers mistrust Hana, not only because she appears haughty, but because her presence among them is truly dangerous. The kindly parish priest, who knows that Christianity is only a thin veneer covering the pagan heritage of his congregation, urges compassion. But an unmarried woman living with a man is a scandal the villagers can’t tolerate, so Hana and Joza must get married. After Hana encourages Joza to discover the miracle of a portable bathtub, she allows him to share her bed. Slowly, almost in spite of herself, Hana learns to love the man who has by now dedicated his life to her protection. As the seasons slowly change, Hana and Joza become a real couple. She learns to cook on a primitive stove, and he installs a hand-planed wooden floor that transforms their shack into a home. An old midwife teaches Hana how to identify and gather medicinal herbs. The sawmill is revived. One long year goes by, then another, and their unlikely love grows comfortable and secure.
Though there are no battles on this mountainside, violence is never far away. Even the priest can’t prevent the abuse that the desperately poor, drunken men heap on their wives and children, nor can he eliminate the constant fear that everyone feels when they hear the sound of stomping boots. As the war drags on, it inevitably comes closer. Partisan soldiers enter the town, and Russian soldiers start “liberating” the country.
Though the end of the war is in sight, there are always those last desperate days of fighting, when allies become indistinguishable from enemies and friendly fire is just as deadly as hand-to-hand combat. In war, there is no guarantee the peacemakers will survive, that love will always conquer all, or that brave men will live long enough to wear medals. And in some parts of the world, when one army leaves, it’s merely time for another to move in.
Zelary (which was nominated in 2003 for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) is a gorgeous film, a languorous love affair with late-afternoon golden light. It moves in an unhurried pace that matches the kind of lives that are lived according to the seasons of the year. The film’s unusually long production schedule and arduous location shooting have earned it legendary status in the Czech Republic’s emerging film industry. Enhancing the haunting effect of Zelary‘s beauty is the awareness of its truthfulness; the film was inspired by actual events related in Jozo Vahanule, an autobiographic novella written by Kvita Legatovas, a Czech doctor. Rated R for violence and some sexual content.
— reviewed by Marci Miller