Obvious as it may seem from time to time, the metaphor of a zoo and its keeper under siege during warfare in a nameless Balkan city produces highly charged imagery and a tense framework for exploring war’s madness in “The Zookeeper.” In a year when Sam Neill has battled massive dinos in “Jurassic Park III” and has tracked Apollo 11 in “The Dish,” this third performance — as a cynical ex-Communist whose main tasks include tossing slabs of raw meat to tigers and comforting ailing elephants — is easily his most interesting. He’s the kind of wounded soul that Jean Renoir would build his movies around, and the film’s core of humanitarianism rarely feels calculated. Reminiscent of “Savior,” in which Dennis Quaid’s soldier was trapped in the Balkan strife, solemn pic has the status for Stateside release (it opens in Denmark on Aug. 31) but may find takers scarce.
Prologue briefly shows a village invaded, its men and women separated, and a young boy named Zioig (Javor Loznica) playing dead during executions. Zioig is picked up by U.N. peacekeepers, but he won’t be fenced in and escapes.
Director Ralph Ziman makes a smooth transition to a zoo in a Balkan city pummeled by incessant bombing. The zoo is now a kind of oasis, but the staff has to evacuate, with Ludovic (Neill) volunteering to stay behind. A vet (Om Puri) offers to stay on for a few days and teach him animal nursing techniques.
When a self-styled band of partisans led by Dragov (Ulrich Thomsen) ignores the zoo’s designation as a sanctuary and drags the vet away because he’s of the wrong ethnicity, Ludovic’s ordered universe begins to implode. Zioig turns up with his mother, Ankica (Gina McKee), who survived her village’s destruction. Dragov’s men, though, return with orders to drag away zoo animals for food.
It’s at this point that “The Zookeeper” would seem likely to run aground on many rocky cliches, but Ziman’s and Matthew Bishop’s script manages to take Ludovic’s character to more complicated depths. Neill is their collaborator in this, creating a man who has emotionally shut down but can’t stop the world from marching back in.
Piotr Kukla’s lensing and Ziman’s staging in the zoo are both wondrous at points: Their juxtaposition of background explosions with the startled creatures isn’t easily shaken. Nikolaj Egelund’s score, though, badly imitates Lisa Gerrard’s signature vocal music. Pic may lay claim to being the first with a credit for “legal counsel – animals.”