Zelary is an old-fashioned film, and that's exactly what one expects from a Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee. Once a haven for daring alternatives to domestic mainstream fare, the category has evolved into a refuge for humanistic tales that are themselves oases of intimacy in a time of unbridled cheap thrills. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, the film (adapted from an autobiographical novella by Kveta Legátová) relates its story in leisurely fashion, pursuing a number of disposable subplots but still offering the time-tested pleasure of sinking into a detailed tale well told.
The movie is also a prime example of the ongoing spate of European horrors-of-war films set in rural milieus this time, a small Czechoslovakian village named Zelary. Heroine Eliska (Anna Geislerová) is a young medical student and resistance fighter living in Prague in 1943. When the doctor who is her lover and a co-conspirator is arrested by the Gestapo, she's forced to flee and hide out in Zelary.
There, she stays with a man named Joza (György Cserhalmi), whose life she'd previously saved via a blood transfusion. Joza is a big peasant lug, a figure in sharp contrast to the delicate and sophisticated Eliska. At first, she's appalled by him and the rough conditions of country life a circumstance that becomes harder to bear when she realizes she's going to have to marry Joza to make her cover complete. But this isn't her worst problem: Rape and crazed family feuds are threatening possibilities. And after surviving the Nazi occupation, the villagers must deal with drunken and trigger-happy Russian liberators.
Though the movie depicts these developments with a lot of gritty violence and tragedy, it's still essentially a love story, with a bittersweet and emotionally rich epilogue that manages to skirt sentimentality. As we said, it's old-fashioned but sometimes, old-fashioned isn't a bad thing.