“What do good men do in bad times?”
So asks a character in Ralph Ziman’s The Zookeeper, a moving drama set in an unnamed Balkan country amidst a devastating civil war. Sam Neill plays Ludovic, a former idealist turned state zoo employee who has replaced human relationships with the easy comfort of animals. As bombs drop throughout the city, the rest of the zoo staff exits to leave Ludovic and an ill-fated veterinarian (Om Puri) to tend to the lions, tigers, elephants and monkeys.
At first, Ludovic goes about his days with rhythmic precision, playing classical music for morning feedings and finishing off the vodka with The Vet, as Puri is billed. Soon a group of racist soldiers visit, taking The Vet away as Ludovic watches helplessly. He gets a troublesome chance at redemption with the arrival of 10-year-old Zioig (terrific newcomer Javor Loznica) and his war-scarred mother, Ankica (Gina McKee).
As the bombs move closer, Ludovic and the refugees form something of a family. Zioig is defensive and militant, rarely dropping a stolen rifle that seems to make the young boy a war photo in motion. Ankica and Ludovic cautiously grow close, less out of romanic attraction than for the human necessity to have some kind of connection with something warm and living. All the while, the tentative family is framed by the subtle hum and glow of bombings and gunfire.
The Zookeeper is a slow but haunting film that uses its setting to incredible effect. Basked in a hazy winter sunniness, we never forget that while war is raging outside the gates, Ludovic can–rather, will–only see it from the artificial confines of his zoo. Sam Neill gives a thoughtfully understated performance as a man who has fenced his sense of righteousness inside a harder shell, and his gradual softening to Zioig never feels overwrought or easy. Similarly, director Ziman creates a moving metaphor with the zoo’s luckless creatures. We know such conflicts aren’t known for sparing the innocent, but to watch an elephant mourn its dying child or an exotic monkey house being senselessly bombed is to see the horrors of war from very effective, very different place.
The Zookeeper is now available on DVD through Brink Entertainment Classics, with a behind-the-scenes featurette included. The film can be purchased here.