Martin Spelda, Sony Pictures Classics
"Zelary" makes it look so easy that you may wonder why Hollywood studios can't seem to get this kind of story right.
Here's a film that manages to tell its tale without pandering, without cheap melodrama, without gimmicks and without big-name stars. Instead, it simply develops its characters and lets the drama unfold naturally.
The result is that "Zelary's" dramatic moments seem more honest and more real than most films, and the film's unexpectedly moving ending seems to have been earned. (It's a shame that some of the film's R-rated elements weren't toned down; this movie deserves to be seen by a wider audience.)
The title of this World War II drama does not refer to a character, but to a small mountain village in what used to be Czechoslovakia. That's where Eliska (Ana Geislerova), a young medical student finds herself.
She and other members of the Czech resistance are on the run from the Nazis. So her former resistance leaders spirit her away, change her name to Hana and, in essence, force her to marry Joza (veteran Hungarian actor Gyorgy Cserhalmi), a mountain man whose life she recently saved.
Eliska is horrified to find herself married to a much older man with whom she has nothing in common. And she lives in constant fear of being discovered by the Gestapo troops who roam the mountainside.
But then something surprising happens. As they spend more time together, she begins seeing all the positive aspects of the kind-hearted Joza, who is doing his best to make the former city girl comfortable in her new surroundings.
While their May-December romance may seem a bit contrived, this and other story elements are based on real-life events (chronicled in Kvita Legatova's memoirs "Jozova Hanule"). And the actors have considerable chemistry, despite their nearly 30-year age difference.
Also, director Ondrej Trojan and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky invest considerable time with scenes that develop that relationship convincingly. They also flesh out the cast of supporting characters, who are almost as appealing as the leads.
"Zelary" is rated R for wartime violence (mostly shootings, as well as some sexual violence), simulated sex, scattered use of strong sexual profanity, gore, brief female nudity, and some use of crude slang terms. Running time: 141 minutes.