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This movie won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

‘Pelle the Conqueror’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1988

In Bille August's "Pelle the Conqueror," Max von Sydow is so astoundingly evocative that he makes your bones ache. This is a performance that comes from the joints and ligaments; it's conceived in marrow.

Von Sydow has so completely entered the body of this old man, who has come from Sweden around the turn of the century to settle with his young son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) as virtual slaves on a farm in Denmark, that he seems physically transformed. Based on Martin Andersen Nexo's Danish novel, "Pelle" has the expansiveness of an epic, but von Sydow keeps it centered in the personal. There's such detail in his work that you can almost measure the temperature in the stable where he lives by the color in his cheeks. You don't have to see the cruelty of the life that he and his son have left behind; it's in the slope of the old man's pinched, narrow shoulders.

In leaving home, father and son may in fact have fallen on even harsher conditions. The servitude that the old man -- whose name is Lasse -- has entered into entitles him and his boy to treatment little better than that given to the animals. (The animals, in fact, probably endure less abuse and get better feed.) The elements become a vivid character in the drama; the emotions are keyed to the seasons and the changes in the landscape. The triumph of Jorgen Persson's cinematography is that it conveys not only the pewter skies and melancholy beauty of the Danish countryside, but its unrelenting rawness as well. When the wife of the farm's owner howls in the night over her husband's philandering, her wails mix with the rampaging winds and the lowing cattle.

August gives this coming-of-age story a ritualistic quality. Soon after Lasse and his son arrive, the farm's manager trainee humiliates the young boy with insults, whipping him and driving him out into the courtyard. Tending the boy's wounds, Lasse promises a violent revenge, but when confronted by the trainee he backs down. The sight of Lasse's impotence marks a turning point for Pelle; the father seems to shrink before him, to become even older, and the pain of seeing him diminished is even greater than that of the whip.

If August had been able to enter into it to the extent that von Sydow has entered into Lasse, the movie might have been a classic. Instead, the film's drama feels far away. Though Lasse and his son are the protagonists, August introduces us to other characters and other stories, and none of them has the resonance of the central one. The boy, too, has an intelligent, open face, but it's not memorable or especially expressive. There are moments to marvel at and stunning images -- like the ghostly shot of a boat with its passenger frozen dead on board -- but there are common elements to all immigrant stories, and August doesn't have the talent or the empathy to transcend the familiarity. Watching, we feel as if we've seen too much of it before.

It's for von Sydow, primarily, that the picture is notable. Von Sydow's face, long familiar to movie lovers from his work with Bergman, now looks like that of El Greco's Christ. He gives Lasse's insignificance a touch of grandeur -- and of comedy. When he calls on a local woman whose husband has been lost at sea for a year, he suddenly seems younger. His posture changes and he takes on a sort of shabby courtliness -- he becomes a gent. The full extent of Lasse's dream of a happy life is a cup of coffee in bed on Sundays. But Pelle's dreams are grander -- he wants to conquer the world, which within the context of the movie means leaving his father and going to America. Watching von Sydow as he helps the boy pack, we wonder at how such simplicity of gesture can convey such emotion. As Lasse, his style has the essence of poetic compression. One shot, of Lasse in his undershirt, his back to the camera, has the full weight of tragedy in it.

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