‘Zelary’ offers well-balanced wisdom amid World War II | AspenTimes.com

‘Zelary’ offers well-balanced wisdom amid World War II

Stewart Oksenhorn
Ana Geislerová and Gyorgy Cserhalmi star in the Czech film "Zelary." Martin Speida photo.

How is it that World War II continues to tickle the imaginations of numerous filmmakers? Probably because WWII was not simply a battle, but a massive social upheaval that affected the lives of entire continents’ worth of people – and then some.After “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s doubtful we’ll see many more films that focus on the war itself. But in recent months, there has been another wave of films – “Strayed,” about a refugee family hiding in rural France; “Head in the Clouds,” starring Charlize Theron as a flirtatious socialite who develops a conscience about world events; and “Bon Voyage,” about the flight from occupied Paris by the French upper class – focusing on the more personal reverberations of the war.The Czech epic “Zelary” rises to the top of the class of such movies. (It joins 2000’s “Divided We Fall,” another World War II-set Czech film that examines the fallout of the war on ordinary people, in earning a nomination for the best foreign-language film Academy Award.)Zelary shows at the Wheeler Opera House today and Thursday.

“Zelary” shows how war disrupts the orderly life of a person, a couple, a village, a country. And the film, directed by Ondrej Trojan, goes even further than surveying such damage; “Zelary” reveals how people adapt to, and even transcend, such upheaval. “Zelary” hits both the depths and heights of emotion, and plumbs both extremes honestly and convincingly.Despite the Nazi occupation of her country, Eliska (Ana Geislerová) is leading a fulfilling life. “Zelary” opens with a scene of Eliska, a medical student, engaged in passionate sex with Richard, her lover and mentor. Eliska finds a measure of excitement in her circumstances: Her tending to the wounded not only aids her country, but also furthers her medical education. She also works in the resistance, dropping messages for fellow partisans.Returning home from a particularly treacherous mission, Eliska finds her world has been upturned. The Nazis are on to her and her cell. Richard has emigrated, and she is being ordered to flee. With phony papers, and placed under the protection of the large, awkward stranger Joza (Gyorgy Csehrlami), Eliska takes a train to a provincial town. Things are bad enough for her there, and Eliska tries to escape.

But bad turns to worse when she learns her final destination is a tiny, mountaintop village – Zelary – where time effectively stopped a century or so earlier. The farmers and millers there live with crude plumbing and no electricity; the village counts on its communal sense of morality to tend to such problems as wicked children and drunkard husbands. Eliska hits bottom when she finds she is to be wed to Joza, who gives her the name Hana.Hana despairs of her new life. But she slowly adapts. She sees the wisdom of Lucka (Jaroslava Adamová), the wrinkled, wise woman who knows the practical arts of herbs, midwifery, conflict mediation and child rearing. And she warms to Joza, who is as gentle and caring as he is strong and unschooled.This sort of transformation could easily be trite. But the strength of “Zelary” is that Hana’s newfound comfort doesn’t prove to be a panacea for her or the village. The Nazis continue to threaten. And just as dangerous, and even closer at hand, are the threats from within Zelary.

The worst damage, in fact, is wrought as soon as the Nazis are defeated: the Czech soldiers, returning to give the good news to the people of Zelary, celebrate too hard and touch off a spree of drunken violence. It is director Trojan’s way of pointing out that despicable behavior endures. In a more predictable telling, “Zelary” would focus on the final plot twist; here, that twist barely registers. And the film doesn’t focus entirely on Hana, but offers a 360-degree group portrait of the village. “Zelary” is marked as much by its portrayals of kindness, brotherhood and wisdom as by the nastiness. A continuing theme is that when beings are treated with gentleness and understanding, they will respond favorably. A thoroughly well-balanced film in every way, “Zelary” has us caring for these humanitarian actions, and grieving the atrocities.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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