As sturdy and dependable as its rugged leading man, György Cserhalmi, Želary is a classy wartime romantic drama that scored an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004. While the story suffers from over-familiarity, it earns its emotional payoff thanks to strong performances by an excellent cast and thoughtful direction by Ondřej Trojan.
The film opens in 1940s Nazi-occupied Prague as dapper surgeon Richard (Trojan) and his nurse/lover Eliška (Anna Geislerová) respond to an emergency call to save a seriously injured man. The patient requires an urgent transfusion and Eliška unquestioningly gives the much-needed blood.
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Richard and Eliška are also part of the resistance, and when her attempt to run a message to a contact falls foul of the Gestapo, the whole network is suddenly in mortal danger. Richard hastily emigrates, leaving Eliška with forged papers, and a friend tells her that if she wants to escape detection she must assume a new identity and leave the city in the company of Joza (Cserhalmi), the man whose life she helped save…
The pair journey across the country to the tiny hamlet of Želary, where Eliška (now Hana) must marry Joza to complete the ruse. Hana is resistant at first, initially distrustful of the hulking, quietly spoken mountain man. Her new surroundings are a world away from her previous urbane life in the capital, especially when she takes up residence in Joza’s rough-hewn log cabin – without electricity, running water, or even a floor to the hut, she’s thoroughly miserable.
Haughty and slight, with her fair hair and alabaster skin, city girl Hana draws suspicion and contempt from the rustic locals. We meet a kindly priest, played by the redoubtable Miroslav Donutil; his counterpart in the film, Tkáč, the strict village schoolmaster (Jaroslav Dušek in a typically wormy, untrustworthy performance). There’s also the community’s salty, outspoken midwife Lucka (Jaroslava Adamová, creating a vivid impression) and Žeňa (Iva Bittová), a young widow who eventually befriends our heroine. A subplot involves an urchin-like young lad called Lipka (Tomás Zatecka) and his drunken, abusive stepfather Michal (Ondřej Koval), who dangerously lusts after Hana at first sight.
Much of what transpires after Hana reluctantly marries her saviour won’t come as a surprise, and at two and a half hours, Želary sure takes its time arriving where most viewers will expect. Stunningly shot in the Malá Fatra mountains of Slovakia, the film is typically rapturous about the natural beauty of Hana’s new surroundings, and the splendour of the scenery gives an otherwise intimate tale a far more epic scope. It’s only a question of when – rather than if – Hana will fall in love with her new life, and her obviously noble and hunky husband.
Like the far more light-hearted Barefoot, the horrors of war seem very distant from Hana’s remote hillside refuge, although danger and tragedy always stalk the narrative. When the other shoe drops, albeit it from a more unexpected direction from the one originally set out, the final act is undeniably upsetting and rousing in equal measure.
Key to the film’s success is the strong performances throughout. Cserhalmi, Geislerová, Donutil, Dušek and Adamová really sell this story with some very dignified characterisations, which helps soften the predictability of the eventual outcome. If the film has a major flaw, it’s that it suffers from a surfeit of thinly drawn secondary characters who are suddenly thrust into the limelight during the third act. As a result, we’re stuck trying to figure out who’s who when we should be getting pleasurably harrowed by the movie’s business end.
It’s August 3rd 2020 and it is absolutely bucketing down outside as I’m writing this review. It occurs to me that on days like this when I was growing up, my parents and grandparents would often settle down in front of the box to watch a big wartime movie like The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Great Escape. Like those films, Želary is captivating in its familiarity – it feels like a movie I’ve seen five times already. It probably won’t surprise you, but unless you’re completely dead inside, it almost certainly will move you.
Želary is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This review originally appeared on the Prague Daily Monitor.