THE ZOOKEEPER is an unjustly overlooked film about bitter regret and unexpected redemption told in the starkest possible terms. Released in 2001, it features a towering performance by Sam Neill in the title role as Ludovic, former Communist party true believer now tending to the municipal zoo in an unnamed war-torn eastern European country suffering the anarchy following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The self-imposed solitude of his life becomes more profound as city is evacuated and he is left alone with the animals and the eccentric vet (Om Puri) of unfortunate ethnicity.
As the film begins, a tiger has died from the shock of hearing bombs drop, and Ludovic has been reduced to tears and anger by a letter from his daughter in Paris. When the call to evacuate is made, he volunteers to stay behind to feed the animals and, if necessary, make the decisions about which ones will be fed to the others when the supplies run out. As with much else, it’s a metaphor for what is happening around him, as factions prey upon one another in the name of taking care of the terrified survivors. That element is brought home in the character of Dragov (Ulrich Thomsen), the commander of a roving band of soldiers whose subjugates Ludovic with a broad smile and the sunny assurance that he is fighting unnamed forces on his behalf.
Ludovic drinks, smiles, rages, and accepts what is happening with indifference while writing in his diary words of exquisite longing and love. The audience discovers this, along with the last remnants of Ludovic’s humanity when he takes in Zioig (Javor Loznica), a child who barely survived the murder of his father and the other men in his village, and Zioig’s mother, Ankica (Gina McKee) who survived the organized rapes and beatings that the women suffered. Emotionally, both are even more lost than Ludovic, setting up a poignant situation that places Ludovic squarely back into the midst of his fellow creatures.
Mckee and Loznica are heartbreakingly indelible, she with a haunted desperation, Loznica with a coldness that belies his tender years. Their emotional shutdown cuts like a knife. Neill is just as subtle, though with a role that allows him to rage. In every choice he makes, there is a deliberate sense of restraint, of not allowing his character to give full reign to the depth of emotion. The wariness of fear of what allowing those feelings, tender or angry, full sway. It is a caustic, unsentimental performance that does not pander to the audience, but instead, forces it to experience the weight of what Ludovic has felt and let fester over the years, and to sympathize with his inability to process it, or to reach out for help. Neill never makes the expected move, and he never disappoints.
The extras on the DVD include a behind the scenes featurette. Co-writer Matthew Bishop details his true-life inspiration for the story. Director and co-writer Ralph Ziman discusses his vision for bringing it to the screen and using it as the opportunity to look into a person‘s soul. The actors also check in, though it is the look at how the animals, monkeys, elephants, wolves, and both lions and tigers, are integrated into the film. The training pays off in now the elephants truly do seem to be talking to Neill, and the capuchin monkey seems to have genuinely bonded with him, chittering away like an old friend as she scampers over and around him.
THE ZOOKEEPER is a haunting film, superbly directed, and filmed with a harsh beauty of colors as bleached as the emotions of the characters. The quiet between explosions, military and emotional, has a savage tension reflecting the times in which it takes place.