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21 June 2005

Želary

Anna Geislerová, György Cserhalmi & Ivan Trojan
Directed by Ondrej Trojan


Let me say right off that I have no compunction against giving away key plot points and the ending to this movie because I doubt I'm going to spoil it for anyone. This review, if you're reading it, is probably the closest you will get to seeing the film. However, if you DO see it, you will be rewarded with a lush, funny, beautiful movie, despite the crappy ending (because it is foreign and arty and needs to stay legit). Oh, and I ditched the Hollywood Video summary because it was stupid. Here goes:

Eliska (a nurse) and Richard (a doctor) are lovers and members of the Czech underground against the Nazis. Comrades of theirs are discovered and executed so, without warning, Richard flees the country and leaves Eliska to the safekeeping of Joza, a mill-worker from the remote little village of Želary. Joza had been badly injured in a mill accident; Richard performed the surgery and Eliska donated her blood, thereby saving his life. To be accepted into the village, Eliska, now in disguise as Hana, must marry Joza and live with him in a tiny, makeshift cabin without electricity. But there are sparks (ha ha!) between the two as they spend more time together. Eventually, they consummate the marriage and spend two years together in Želary.

Along the way, we are introduced to a number of varied characters from the village: the headmaster whose allegiances are questionable; Lucka, the old medicine woman who tutors Hana on country remedies; Lipka, the outcast boy who lives in the bog in order to escape the abuse of his alcoholic step-father, Michal; adorable little Helenka and her widowed mother Zena, a woman who becomes Hana's dear friend; and the priest who knows of Hana's disguise.

What could have been a thin story (forced marriage becomes one of love) is made colorful and fulfilling by the addition of these village characters. And these are not just minor asides. During the film's 2 1/2 hr running time, because there is hardly such a thing as a SHORT foreign film, the lives of these characters are quite fully explored. Half a dozen scenes could pass before seeing either of the two main characters alone together. By this method, the movie became more of the story of Želary itself - its people and customs - rather than about Hana's relationship with Joza.

In the end, it isn't the Germans who disturb Želary's remote tranquility, but their liberators, the Russians. The vanguard of the Russian army settles heavily on the village, full of song, liquor and lust. What starts as one man's attempt to rape a young bride becomes a gun battle as the villagers fight to protect their families from the soldiers. The outcast boy Lipka saves the town by gathering the villagers and leading them to his safe retreat in the bog, where they tend the wounded and await the full arrival of the Russian army, their saviors.

Then, during his efforts to help Lipka find all of the villagers, the lovely and weathered Joza is shot in the stomach and dies, mere moments before they are all saved. Bite me. Sucks.

After what looks like twenty years or so (time passes but it is unspecified), Eliska returns to Želary with Richard to see what little remains of the cabin she shared with Joza for those two years. Richard's hair is gray, Eliska is wearing glasses and 60s garb, the cabin is in shambles, and Joza is long dead. But she is reunited with the old healer, Lucka, and they laugh like mad women at the sight of each other. Fin.

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