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(2004) ** 1/2 R
150 min. Sony Pictures Classics.

With Želary--Czechoslovakia's 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film—-director Ondřej Trojan adapts an autobiographical novella by Kvíta Legátová. Recounting experiences from the Nazi occupation of the 1940s (well, what did you expect?), this well-appointed drama balances period realism with a storybook quality. Želary tells of heroism and healing amidst moral weakness and despair.

As a narrative, Želary can be unfocused or even—near the end of its 150-minute running time—rambling. Anna Geislerová plays Eliska, a city nurse active in the resistance movement who must abandon her surgeon lover and reinvent herself in the mountain village of Želary. Eliska—now calling herself Hana—accompanies a patient on his return home to the countryside; to explain her sudden presence, Hana is obliged to marry the man, a gentle soul named Joza (György Cserhalmi). The development of their relationship, from Hana sleeping with scissors under the pillow to mutual affection in full blossom, follows a sweet course. Their relationship begins, unknowingly, with Hana giving Joza a blood transfusion; they continue to offer each other tender care.

Želary bears a superficial resemblance to Dogville with its threatening shake-up of a mountain town by a fugitive woman who challenges a repressive culture. But Trojan's film only occasionally musters a crisp focus, and then only to make a bluntly emotional point (in one scene of triumphant dramatic economy, lasting no more than twenty seconds, Hana meets Joza's mother). Though hard-drinking folk try to wish away ominous signs of doom, World War II and its attendant local metaphors serve as MacGuffins for a quiet tale of two people, if only Trojan would keep his focus on them. A simply observed bonding of Hana and an old herbalist woman connects, but much more screen time goes down the drain of an abusive, peripheral neighbor family. As we reluctantly wander around the village, Želary begins to feel like a month's worth of Little House on the Prairie episodes.

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