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The Zookeeper
cast: Sam Neill, Gina McKee, Ulrich Thomsen, Om Puri, and Javor Loznica

director: Ralph Ziman

108 minutes (15+) 2001
widescreen ratio 16:9
Force DVD Region 4 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
The Zookeeper is one of the better-kept secrets of Sam Neill's career. After emerging from the commercial dross of Jurassic Park 3, the actor started work on something of completely different calibre, a moving drama set amidst the tumultuous background of east European civil war. That film's director, Ralph Ziman, is that rarity in mainstream cinema: a creator of some political consciousness. It's a characteristic he showed in his first film Hearts And Mind (1996) set in Praetoria, which focussed on a death squad assassin aiming to infiltrate the National African Congress. According to those who have seen it, the result was memorable but it remains obstinately unavailable on DVD, and so almost completely unknown to most viewers. After working on a pop video collection, presumably to pay the rent between serious assignments, Ziman took a number of years to develop what is by all accounts something of a pet project for him, The Zookeeper. It's a film which communicates a similar feeling of political unease, again focusing on the various costs, private and public, of social upheaval and ideological conflict.

Neill was a deliberate casting choice for the role of Ludovic, the disillusioned party member now animal keeper in some unnamed, conflict-ridden east European city, a character estranged from his former beliefs, his daughter (now living in Paris and sending recriminatory letters) and, ultimately, himself. In Ziman's co-written script, Ludovic's zoo is under direct threat from street fighting partisans while the keeper determines to keep it a 'sanctuary' from the constant shelling outside. Underlying all are the realities of the Bosnian conflict, the spectre of ethnic cleansing hovering on the zoo's doorstep. During the first part of the film, as the underpaid and frightened zoo staff disappear off, Ludovic gradually finds himself looking after the entire establishment with just the vet (Indian actor Om Puri) helping with animal care. Soon however local warlord Yeltsov (the frighteningly malevolent Marek Vasut, seen more recently in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing) enters the compound, and the keeper is left to fend with his animals alone.

There's an obvious metaphor to proceedings as Ludovic watches over the creatures in his own institution while outside a different, and far more dangerous, set of beasts prowl the streets. Yeltsov's brigands even call themselves 'The Young Lions' and adopt a zoo cub as a mascot - a moment which, as they hold it up for a group photograph, reminds one of the genocidal Nazi commander and his lemur in Come And See. Haunted by his past and unspecified crimes he committed while in a position of power, the question is whether Ludovic stays put either through a need to escape from the war outside and his own conscience, or through a genuine need to look after the animals. The situation is complicated by the arrival of the young widow Ankica (Gina McKee) and her son, both looking for respite and refuge after their personal experience of war atrocities. Ankica discover a more sensitive and regretful Ludovic when she comes across his private journals - but then the war intrudes again into their enclave.

The Zookeeper can be compared to No Man's Land, awarded the best foreign language film Oscar in the same year. Both cover the same contemporary events, although Ziman's film is the more intimate of the two, less satirical. In both, blue helmeted UN peacekeepers are in evidence although in The Zookeeper they are barely noticeable, standing impotent in the background. And whereas No Man's Land focuses more on the predicament of soldiery trapped in trenches, the present film finds its heart within the civilian Ludovic. He who, whilst in a uniform of his own (that of an animal keeper, in which he still takes pathetic pride), answers to no misguided loyalties on any side.

When we first see Ludovic he is roused from his bed, awoken by a dawn raid in the street outside - a moment that momentarily recalls the anxieties of The Pianist (2002). As he proceeds to and from his work, beset in turn by self doubts, moral isolationism and the demands of checkpoint guards, Neill gives an excellent browbeaten performance, his doomed gravitas conveying exactly the increasingly shell-shocked, anguished zoo employee, too many lives weighing in his grasp. Chief among the other pleasures of the film are the superb set, apparently constructed on an abandoned military base, but entirely convincing as a 'found' location. And as a corollary to Ludovic's own moral predicament, the rundown buildings containing despairing and bewildered wildlife are entirely apposite. The Zookeeper's supporting cast are also uniformly excellent.

Given the plight of the animals it would be too easy for the film to sentimentalise events and Ziman largely avoids this pitfall, to his credit. The initial cremation of the big cat, the later burning of the Monkey House and the deaths in the wolf pen are all handled with restraint and, in most respects during these events, Ludovic internalises his grief and the suffering. In fact this is the film's weakness; the zoo keeper's hidden journals and his grudging feelings towards the young family all indicate a sensitive man - especially in comparison with the callous Yeltsov - all but crushed by circumstance but hanging on grimly. His story would have been helped and enriched by an opening-out towards the end in words as well as action, although the mute significance of holding hands - a motion signifying human connective-ness, which appears at key moments during the film - has its own articulate power.

While no masterpiece, The Zookeeper is well worth tracking down and it is puzzling why it has had such limited exposure on DVD, only appearing on a region four disc as far as I can discover. This edition's chief extra is a 25-minute location report which reveals the modesty of all involved, as well as their dedication to a production which took six years to bring to fruition.
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