Zelary (2004)

Who has peeked inside Czech Republic since the Oscar winning Kolya? This weekend we rented the movie a recent Czech film, Zelary (rhymes with celery).  The Czech Republic is the star; this film really shows her off: the mountains, wildflowers, colors of changing seasons, snow.

Miss Czech Republic
Miss Czech Republic

Zelary looks back, with nostalgia, on the transition between WW II Gestapo control of the country and the Russian takeover.  A short period of time existed between the two regimes. I can only imagine the impetus to make this film was for it to be a cultural reminder to the people of Czech Republic. It asks the big questions:  Who are we? Were did we come from? Where might we be going?

Short synopsis from metaphor point-of-view: Female sexuality holds center stage and works as a metaphor for the Czech Republic itself. Within the feminine element the film plays out bigger themes of birth and death, oppression and freedom, tenderness and brutality, fidelity and betrayal, and most provocatively, the urban and rural.

The film begins with an “urban” sex scene set in a modern apartment with streamline furniture, lots of books, records and record player, leather chairs, satin sheets. Eliska, an OR nurse, and Richard, a surgeon, are active in the resistance movement.  Both are  well educated, well-groomed, wealthy, have attractive bodies lovely undergarments, and all of their teeth.  They make love to a jazz recording.

Cut to an hour later when Eliska has sex with a country man, Joza. To save her own life and to hide from the Nazi Gestapo, Eliska marries Joza but consummation takes weeks–or maybe months. Eliska must embrace the countryside and with it her man.  Though Eliska softens up, Joza still smell bad to her. If he wants her, he has to take a bath in the new wooden tub and use soap.

The rural lovemaking happens in a bed, as in the first scene. The mountain coupling is very tender and long-awaited rather than impulsive and without a clear understanding of the relationship between the  man and woman.  Eliska and salt-of-the-earth Joza  snuggle down in an overstuffed feather bed with a rough frame and flannel sheets. Their cabin has a dirt floor, no electricity, a few pots and pans, and a midget-sized door they have to stoop under to enter.

After she falls deeply in love with Joza, Eliska is raped in a sauna by a local drunk who threatens to expose her past political activities to the Gestapo and therefore jeopardize everyone in the village who might have helped her hide.  There are more brutal rapes: a mountain woman is dragged off by a troop of German Gestapo who have just killed her family because they supported partisans. When the Russians arrive after  the Germans are defeated, they go on a rape rampage.

Zelary makes men the protectors of the culture, the country, the women.  Men also threaten the safety and dignity of the women.  They are surgeons, priests, farmers, soldiers, foreigners, and countrymen.  At the film’s beginning, when the resistance leaders send Eliska off with the saw mill man, they tell her: “Joza is a good man. He will die for you.”

Die he does. When the Russians are on their rape and pillage rampage, Joza risks his life to gather the lost and stranded members of his village and shepherd them to a safe spot. By accident, he is shot by his own villager.  His death frees the woman.

Off screen Eliska returns to the city, completes her medical training, and becomes a doctor.

The last moments of Zelary are profoundly touching. Four or five years later, together with Richard (the surgeon from the first sex scene), Eliska returns to what remains of the mountain village. The only person still living in the hills, it the old ‘witch doctor’  who wears a babushka and traditional country clothes. She is the woman who birthed babies, gathered herbs, and prepared the dead.  The old and new women embrace. Voila Czech Republic.

Director: Ondrej Trojan
Cast: Ana Geislerov, Gyrgy Cserhalmi, Jaroslava Adamov, Miroslav Donutil
Language: Czech

History of Czech Cinema website: http://www.czech.cz/en/culture/czech-arts/film/history-of-czech-cinematography/