The Czech drama Zelary brings to mind Bertolt Brecht's pointed observation that "war is like love; it always finds a way." In this instance, war creates the atmosphere in which an unlikely love flourishes, then overwhelms that love. Only a fool would try to improve on Brecht, but after absorbing Ondrej Trojan's extraordinary film, the temptation is irresistible: the way of war, the great playwright might have added, allows for no other.
Adapted from an autobiographical novella by Kvita Legatova, Zelary focuses on a rocky marriage of necessity between a sleek young sophisticate from Prague and a country bumpkin. Eliska (the delicately beautiful Ana Geislerova) is a nineteen-year-old medical student and nurse who conducts a torrid affair with a handsome doctor while they sip champagne and the latest American songs warble forth from the Victrola. But this is 1943, and when the Gestapo closes in on the resistance group Eliska's belongs to, she is forced to flee to the countryside in the company of one Joza Janda (veteran Hungarian star Gyrgy Cserhalmi), a crude farmer who wipes his nose with his sleeve and, she soon learns, bunks down with his sheepdog. Upon coming to ground in the remote, green, impossibly lovely mountain village of Zelary, Eliska must now change her name to Hana, marry Joza for social camouflage, and somehow adapt to a place where goats wander the dirt streets and the suspicious local women spend their time weaving baskets and harvesting herbs. It's like Zsa Zsa Gabor getting shipped off to Fargo with a shoe salesman. But it also recalls the chameleon in another Eastern European movie gem, Europa, Europa, the resourceful teenager who survives World War II by turning himself into all things for all people -- Jew into Gentile, Soviet Youth shouter into German infantryman.
The wonder of Trojan's film, although inevitable from the start, is that love does find a way for his odd couple, while artillery fire thunders on in the distance. Under pressure to not only survive but to reinvent themselves, "Hana" and Joza cautiously rise out of mutual antagonism into guarded coexistence, then affection born of need, and in the end, genuine devotion. At their best, Oscar and Felix could never make such enriching accommodations, nor improvise so beautifully. The urbanized Hana learns to cook (at first, even the dog refuses her lumpy, pale-green dinners). Joza takes a hint and bathes. He brings her books. She sets aside her silver cigarette case and cleans the cabin. In time, they become a weirdly complementary couple -- the educated healer and the natural man.
Director Trojan, who is also a producer and a leading actor in Sklep, Prague's famously politicized theater company, has a great eye and, if I don't miss my guess on the far side of the translation divide, a fine ear. The bewildered tension of Hana and Joza's class-tangling wedding day, which comes complete with vodka-fueled lurchings and a casual beating, is a stunning thing to behold, and the pivotal scene in which the assimilationist country wife, now cloaked in a peasant's headscarf, stumbles upon a burned-out cottage and the bodies of three partisans hanged by the Nazis, vividly demonstrates that even the odd bliss of a rustic Eden cannot stay long immune to the encroachment of totalitarianism. As he puts the demands of survivalism on a collision course with the timeless urges of the heart, Trojan creates an alchemy that is raw, unsettling, and touching.
Happily, his leading actors -- she of the longing, liquid eyes, he the picture of blunt nobility -- are ideally tuned to the task: We believe from the start that Joza and the reluctant bride he comes to call "Hanulka" are beautiful strangers destined for love's relentless way. "Watch the mud, Miss," Joza advises Hana on a crude street of Zelary. Good advice. Beware also the grime of violent ambition.
At 148 minutes, Zelary may test the patience of some viewers, but it plays swiftly, its vivid explorations of the human animal worth every moment of our attention. The well-drawn and dramatically useful secondary characters include a practical and thoughtful parish priest ("God help you from being arrested," he prays), an inventive schoolboy who must evade both the Nazis and his father's abuse, a collection of no-nonsense village crones, and -- just offscreen for most of the proceedings -- war itself. This is the demon that rules all these lives, that gives birth to invention and, miracle of ironic miracles, nurtures an inconceivable love. As Brecht said, war always finds a way.
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