Managing to be at once epic and intimate, “Zelary” matches a resilient urban woman against a compassionate rural man in the spectacular Moravian countryside during World War II. Results rep a triumph of regional filmmaking, but in the David Lean tradition, for helmer Ondrej Trojan, who authoritatively returns to the director’s chair after 13 years producing for Jan Hrebejk and others under his Prague-based Total HelpArt shingle. This year’s Czech submission for the foreign film Oscar, pic seems destined to ride assured direction, solid perfs and a nuanced story of universal human concerns to warm reviews and beefy arthouse biz.
Czechoslovakia, 1943: Her medical studies interrupted by the Nazi occupation, young Eliska (Anna Geislerova) works as a nurse in a big-city hospital alongside her lover, surgeon Richard Littner (Ivan Trojan). The two are also heavily involved in the high-risk resistance movement alongside their colleague Dr. Chladek (Jan Hrusinsky).
When Littner’s cover is blown and he’s forced to flee, Chladek places Eliska with roughhewn Moravian mountain man Joseph (Gyorgy Cserhalmi), who’d been brought to the hospital following a sawmill accident. Under the name Hana Hofmanova, Eliska travels with “Joza” to the remote village of Zelary to wait out the Nazi threat.
First 20 minutes play like a traditional meller. Yet this is just a preamble to the more subtly nuanced main drama. When Eliska first sets eyes on the remote, dirt-floor cabin in which she’s to live, her question of, “Where’s the yard?” is met with Joza’s completely straight-faced reply: “Everywhere.”
Over the next two years, the taciturn woodsman and the educated resistance fighter form a strong, complex marriage bond against the backdrop of a high-altitude hamlet the local kids call “Zelary-celery chickenshit smellery” but is in fact the safe place where Eliska discovers her own deep wells of tolerance and compassion. Inevitably, the war brings the relative peace to a jarring halt, but not before their improbable happiness has forever changed her life.
While not a terribly original tale at first blush, subplots and metaphors give the tale satisfying textures. Though the thick Moravian dialect is daunting at first, Eliska/Hana and Joza eventually connect the old fashioned way, through level gazes and mutual trust.
Skilled support is provided by vet Miroslav Donutil as a nervous yet gentle town priest; Jaroslav Dusek’s calculating teacher, another variation on the craven bureaucrat he’s played in Hrebejk’s “Divided We Fall” and “Pupendo”; vet Jan Triska as a prominent villager; and ubiquitous, popular Ivan Trojan — Ondrej’s younger brother — as Eliska’s noble yet enigmatic lover, Richard.
But it is the clear-eyed strength of Geislerova’s Eliska/Hana, matched with Hungarian-born Cserhalmi’s gentle giant Joza, that render pic consistently interesting. The popular actress first appeared as a teen in Trojan’s genial 1991 directorial debut “Let’s All Sing Around,” and “Zelary” marks a quantum leap forward for them both. Cserhalmi plays Joza with a stoic vulnerability reminiscent of both John Wayne and Stellan Skarsgard.
Tech package is top-notch, reuniting Trojan with capable vets Petr Jarkovsky (Hrebejk’s writing partner), cutter Vladimir Barak and “Let’s All Sing Around” lenser Asen Sopov. Special kudos to production designer Milan Bycek for the built-from-scratch village sets and the lived-in look of Katarina Bielikova’s detailed costuming. Petr Ostrouchov’s fine score is at once warm and contemplative.
Pic’s early September Czech Republic preem garnered strong notices and good biz. Title of source novel, inspired by a true story, translates literally as “Joseph’s Hana.” Subtitling on VHS tape caught renders multiple languages, particularly the tricky Moravian dialect, with nuanced aplomb.