Oct 20, 2004 at 12:00 am

Zelary is an old-fashioned film, and that’s exactly what one expects from a Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee. Once a haven for daring alternatives to domestic mainstream fare, the category has evolved into a refuge for humanistic tales in a time of unbridled cheap thrills. Zelary is also a prime example of the ongoing spate of European horrors-of-war films set in a rural milieu, this time a small Czechoslovakian village called Zelary.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the film tells its story in leisurely fashion, with a number of disposable subplots, while offering the time-tested pleasure of sinking into a detailed tale well-told.

Adapted from an autobiographical novella, Zelary’s heroine, Eliska, is a young med student and resistance fighter in Prague in 1943. When the doctor who is her lover and a co-conspirator is arrested by the gestapo, she’s forced to flee and hide out in Zelary.

In Zelary she stays with a man named Joza, whose life she’d previously saved with a blood transfusion. Joza is a big peasant lug, a sharply contrasting figure to the delicate and sophisticated Eliska. At first she’s appalled by him and the rough conditions of country life, a circumstance that becomes harder to bear when she realizes she’s going to have to marry Joza to make her cover more complete.

This isn’t her worst problem — rape and crazed family feuds are threatening potentials. After surviving the Nazi occupation, the villagers must deal with drunken and trigger-happy Russian liberators.

Though this is a movie with a lot of gritty violence and a tragic climax, it’s still essentially a love story with a bittersweet and emotionally rich epilogue that manages to skirt sentimentality. Sometimes old-fashioned isn’t a bad thing.

In Czech, with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22-23, at 7 and 9:45 p.m.; and on Sunday, Oct. 24, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3137.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].