Eliska is a young, attractive city girl who was training to be a doctor before World War II but is now working as a nurse in a Prague hospital. It is 1943 and Czechoslovakia is under Nazi occupation. Eliska and her surgeon boyfriend, Richard, are members of the resistance until one day he disappears and Eliska is told she must leave for an isolated part of the Moravian countryside, hide and assume a new identity married to a 55-year-old sawmill worker.
Zelary is superbly directed by Ondrej Trojan, who produced Cosy Dens (1999), a Czech film which won acclaim at many film festivals around the world, including Sydney, a few years ago. Although not many Czech films reach our shores, the Czech Republic has a thriving film industry as well as an international film festival held each July at Karlovy Vary. Zelary was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year. It also took several prizes, including Best Actress and Best Sound at the Czech film awards.
Petr Jarchowsky adapted the screenplay from Jozova Hanule, a semi-autobiographical novel by Kveta Leg?v?Zelary really tells the story of the clash between two different worlds and two different people and the unfolding of an extraordinary relationship: one of fear, reservations, suspicion and then love born from a common will to survive.
Czech actress Anna Geislerov?s outstanding as Eliska/Hana and Hungarian veteran actor Gy? Cserhalmi puts in a strong performance as the isolated, bachelor Joza. That the film succeeds in depicting the raw emotions of a relationship between two strangers who find themselves thrown together is all the more extraordinary because the actors could not actually converse with one another, since they had no language in common. Trojan filmed over the course of a year in order to reflect Eliska’s journey and to capture the passing of the seasons in a part of Europe that reaches 38 degrees in summer and minus 28 in winter. The cinematography is lustrous, the lives of the villagers beautifully realised and the beauty of the landscape is well used to contrast sharply with the chaos unfolding in Europe towards the end of the war.
Although a lot of what appears at first in Zelary seems so familiar, this is deceptive and slowly you are drawn into a film that is much more than the sum of its parts. Apart from the love story, the subplots revolving around the other people in the village are both bittersweet and almost blackly funny. This film will appeal to fans of Eastern European cinema of the 50s and 60s as well as those cinema-goers who want a change of pace from Hollywood fare. Zelary opens on 25 November at the Chauvel, Valhalla and Roseville Cinemas.