By Desson Thomson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 27, 2009
Freedom, of course, is the DNA of American movies. Give us heroes who fight for it till the final reel or we're deeply outraged. So what are we to make of a movie -- Swedish and subtitled, no less -- in which the heroine seems to resist every opportunity to liberate herself? Where's the cathartic satisfaction in tight-lipped, Nordic inaction?
The answer comes subtly but rewardingly in "Everlasting Moments," Jan Troell's epic family melodrama set in the hardscrabble times of early 20th-century Sweden. Based on a real story, the movie centers on a Finnish-born wife and mother whose serendipitous possession of a still camera -- she wins it in a lottery -- leads to her own quest for personal autonomy. And in delicate but telling ways, the movie uses the prism of an oppressive, old-world order to examine just how relative that autonomy can be.
Maria Larsson (a powerful Maria Heiskanen) never leaves her abusive, womanizing husband -- even when he goes to jail. And she's forced to raise seven children in financial misery. But in this patriarchal world, escape or divorce is unthinkable for a woman. When she's behind that Contessa camera, however, she finds a certain freedom. Taking portraits doesn't just bring money into the home, it introduces her to the liberating perspective of the artist. She realizes the lens gives her the power to elevate humanity.
Through Maria's eyes, we become hyper-aware of the small, unspoken victories available to women of her time. And by extension, we can appreciate freedom in ways we seldom do in more modern-set dramas. When Maria ignores a direct order from her husband Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt) to curtail a portrait session, it's as subversive as things get in this household. A shocked Sigge backs down, and Maria's privately held triumph becomes ours. Oxygen refills our lungs once again.
We know Maria has found her calling -- the closest to self-realization she'll ever get -- when her photograph of a drowned girl moves the heart of the bereaved mother.
"I never saw her so beautiful," says the mother tearfully.
Narrated by Maria's eldest daughter Maja (Callin Ohrvall), who is baffled by her mother's determination to preserve the family, the movie is no feminist tract. Suffering comes just as acutely to Sigge, who comes in and out of jail, briefly flirts with socialism and runs afoul of a dock workers' strike that turns deadly.
A monster when he's drunk, he's also a playful charmer in sober moments, arms outstretched for all his children. Even in his darkest acts, which include hitting his wife, he's a terrified, intimidated animal. It comes as no surprise that he's at his most comfortable when he's tending horses. Our reflexive hatred of him is tempered with a sort of mitigating pity. And Maria's climactic dilemma -- should she leave Sigge for the genial camera store proprietor (Jesper Christensen) who taught her photography? -- is not as clear-cut as we'd like to think.
There's another satisfying benefit to "Everlasting Moments," a five-prize winner at Sweden's equivalent of the Oscars, and the country's nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture at the most recent Academy Awards. It's gloriously absent the hyper-speed anxiety that passes for storytelling on our multiplex screens.
Troell, whose best-known works are 1972's "The Emigrants" and 1996's "Hamsun," makes films in the European art form of the 1960s and early 1970s. We can enjoy an old master who patiently accumulates episodic detail and seeks a portrait-like purity in his images. (He's also his own cinematographer.)
One poetic moment comes most immediately to mind: Spiriting her children away from a drunken Sigge, Maria leads her brood through fog and swirling snow. Caught in the headlight glare of a streetcar, mother and children are rendered momentarily in silhouette -- an archetypal portrait of a family in distress, and an everlasting moment, if you will.
Everlasting Moments (131 minutes, in Swedish with subtitles, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is not rated and contains profanity, sexual material, domestic battery and rape.