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MOVIE REVIEW

Literate but unoriginal tale aided by touching performances

''Zelary" begins the way any movie about World War II might.

In 1940s Prague, a doctor and a nurse are lovers who secretly aid the Resistance movement. For a brief period we watch them going about their days saving lives and managing to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo. So far, so predictable.

But ''Zelary" isn't conceived as a war movie. Director Ondrej Trojan and writer Petr Jarchovsky, working from the novella ''Jozova Hanule" by Kveta Legatova, envision an unconventional love story that merely uses war as a backdrop and convenient facilitator for a city-girl-meets-salt-of-the-earth scenario. It isn't long before the Resistance group is discovered and the doctor flees, bringing the focus in on the real couple driving this film: the young nurse, Eliska, and a grateful, middle-age former patient who comes from a remote mountain village named Zelary.

The mountain man is Joza, played by Gyorgy Cserhalmi as an unrefined but lovable ox who first meets Eliska when he's injured in a sawmill accident and she comes to his rescue. Payback comes when Eliska, played by the lovely Ana Geislerova, needs a place to hide out. Joza offers his rural cabin, but to embrace this new life and be accepted by the locals, Eliska must rename herself Hana and marry him, trusting that this stranger will deliver a better fate than she would find at the hands of the Germans. He does -- despite getting a coddled wife who, in the beginning, can't cook dinners fit for the dog -- and in due course she falls for him the same way she falls for Zelary, with its pure values and colorful denizens ready to teach her about all that really matters. You've seen many similar cart-before-the-horse courtships, with and without subtitles; ''Zelary" goes the charming way of most all of them.

In fact, this is exactly the kind of literary, throwback-minded film that elderly Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters generally adore (''Zelary" was nominated for a foreign language Oscar last year) and elevate all the more because it clocks in at 2 hours. The village of Zelary is simple and timeless, as is the story, and director of photography Asen Sopov makes certain the audience is wowed by the rugged, majestic landscape that nestles the tiny enclave. Geislerova and Cserhalmi deliver oddly compatible, genuinely touching performances sometimes reminiscent of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in ''The Quiet Man."

The war intrudes again toward the end, when it reemerges as a convenient plot device, driving the story to its inevitable tragic conclusion. But even then, its brutal realities are distant and muted -- as when Hana comes across a trio of hanging corpses that Trojan's cameras shoot at arm's length, obscured by rain.

Trojan has no interest in delving deeper into the war because ''Zelary" doesn't have anything new to say about its period, place, or people, even when it's pointing up their most monstrous behaviors. This is just humble, heartwarming storytelling with good acting and lush visuals, and the only important question it poses is whether that's enough to sustain you for 150 minutes.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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