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Niki Caro brings honesty, relevance to ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’

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Jessica Chastain is excellent as Antonina Zabinski in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” (Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features)

Niki Caro’s touching “The Zookeeper’s Wife” has the benefit of using real animals in every scene… almost.

“I couldn’t imagine myself telling a true story with fake animals,” says the New Zealand director, who adds that in some cases, puppets were used for baby animals when they couldn’t be taken away from their mothers. And a CG elephant was used for one tricky shot.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife,” based on a nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman, documents the harrowing tale of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), who ran the Warsaw Zoo at the beginning of World War II, and used the facilities to protect persecuted Jews right under the noses of the Nazis.

The movie fits Caro’s favorite themes: honest, emotional stories about human beings in natural environments.

Caro’s dedication and skill have led to Oscar nominations for Keisha Castle-Hughes in “Whale Rider” and Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand in “North Country.” In “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” Chastain may be worthy of the same honor.

“She’s the only person that could have played Antonina,” says Caro, “She’s an animal lover and she’s vegan, but I had no idea of the extent of her gifts with animals. It’s really rare and special.”

The movie was meant to open with a shot of Antonina feeding baby lion cubs with a bottle. Instead, it’s a peaceful early-morning scene of the cubs sleeping on the family’s bed.

“They had already been fed, so we popped them on the bed, and they went straight to sleep,” Caro says. “It was a closed set with the animals. It was very quiet. And it was a beautiful image, and possibly a better image.”

Caro’s natural storytelling gift, she believes, is rooted in a “horror of sentimentality.”

“There is a difference between emotion and sentiment,” she explains. “So I try to create circumstances for the emotion to be real. I don’t tend to want to manipulate emotion out of an audience. I want them to feel it genuinely. I hope I make movies that stick with people a bit longer.”

Aside from the emotional power of her true story, as Caro brought the film to completion, she realized she was making more than a historical drama.

“While we were shooting in Prague, there was the migrant crisis in Budapest and the terrorist attacks in Paris,” she says. “We released the trailer, and the response we got back, overwhelmingly, is that this is a contemporary film.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Written by: Angela Workman
Directed by: Niki Caro
Rated PG-13
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

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