Rated PG-13

124 Minutes

Released March 31

 

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a truly beautiful and inspiring movie based on a true story of a Polish couple who ran a zoo in Warsaw during the German occupation in World War II. Antonia and Jan Zabinski secretly smuggled Jews to safety from the ghetto into their villa inside the zoo under the guise of their delivery van. The story itself inspired American poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman to write the book. The main themes of Ackerman’s works are nature and its relationship with human ingenuity, the themes around which this story revolves. Ackerman’s book in turn inspired acclaimed New Zealand film director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country, McFarland USA) to make the film.

This movie is touching, gorgeous and thought provoking on many levels. Caro has assembled a brilliant cast and crew to tell this heroic story. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams, one of the best in the business, has composed for films as varied as Shrek and Live by Night and has created a gorgeous score. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh is able to capture scenes as varied as the ravages of the Warsaw ghetto, the beauty of nature, and the movements and faces of the zoo animals as easily as his camera studies the faces of the characters.

There are several outstanding performances that carry the film. Even the minor players in the cast, many of whom are from Prague where the film was shot, are all memorable. During the Q&A that followed my screening, Jessica Chastain noted that she prepared for her role as Antonina Zabinski by spending time with Antonina’s daughter Teresa at the Warsaw Zoo. She asked Teresa what kind of animal her mother would have been. Teresa replied “a cat.” Of her choice to take on this role, Chastain noted that she had recently played a strong woman who was cold, calculating and tough (Ms. Sloane), so she welcomed the challenge of a character who was soft and feminine yet just as fierce. Reportedly Antonine had a rare ability to communicate with wild animals, to make them feel that they could trust her. Chastain did extensive research for her role getting in touch with a variety of animals. She spent a lot of time at the Warsaw Zoo, which is still much in the same state that it was during the 1940’s. Teresa told the film’s producers, “You know how my mother dealt with the Nazis? She knew how to talk to predatory animals.” Other notable performances are Johann Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband “Jan,” Daniel Bruhl as the Nazi “Lutz Heck,” Iddo Goldberg as “Maurycy Fraenkel,” and Shira Haas as the troubled and mysterious “Urszula.”

This is a movie for the ages, beautifully crafted, about an extraordinary human being. Caro explained that Antonina saw people as animals – in their base state. Nothing got in the way of her humanity. There are a lot of touch points in this story for today’s world politics. See this movie on the big screen if possible.

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