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‘The Ox’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 30, 1992

Sven Nykvist brings a somber artistry to "The Ox," a sparsely worded film well suited to the legendary cinematographer's latent directorial talents. A harsh portrait of rural life in 19th-century Sweden, this deeply moral story springs from an incident that took place during a famine in the 1860s. The facts, worn away over time, take on the neat shape and bleak tone of a Calvinist fable in Nykvist's version.

The royalty of Scandinavian film and theater -- Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson -- play pivotal roles, but the stars of the film are Stellan Skarsgard and Ewa Froling as Helge and Elfrida Roos. A brawny farmhand with no food for the winter, Helge is literally on the horns of a dilemma: Does he let his wife and infant daughter starve or does he kill one of his employer's two oxen and survive till summer? To Elfrida's initial horror, he kills the trusting, velvet-eyed beast, then butchers it before joining the employer, Svenning (Lennart Hjulstrom), and his wife, Maria (Ullmann), for a sparse holiday spread.

Elfrida is rigid with fear and shame, but the hungry baby's wailing soon persuades her to eat some of the meat. Though she is consumed by guilt, she begins to understand, perhaps even appreciate that Helge has sacrificed his own peace of mind for them. When the meat rots in spring, she becomes a full-fledged accomplice in the theft by urging her husband to take the hide to a neighboring market. On the way, Helge runs into the vicar (von Sydow), who discovers the reason for Helge's journey. Expecting the farmer to get off with a fine and a lecture, the vicar persuades him to turn himself in.

The judge takes the killing of an ox rather more seriously than expected -- maybe he had one as a pet when he was a kid -- and sentences Helge to life at hard labor in Sweden's most loathsome prison. While Helge sloshes about knee-deep in gloom and the vicar tries to have the sentence commuted, Elfrida prostitutes herself for food and becomes pregnant. Things get worse before they get better, but they do get better when Svenning relents and forgives the Rooses. And that for the Swedes is a happy ending.

Though nicely acted, "The Ox" isn't a profoundly involving film. Co-written by Nykvist and his editor, Lasse Summanen, the material's worthy, but it's also climactically inert. Without control over his future, the hero is a dramatic eunuch, an ox in his own right. The tale works best in a universal context -- what one man's theft costs the entire community, which depends on the ox to haul the timber and pull the plow. The question is, who's going to relate that to stealing a car?

"The Ox," in Swedish with English subtitles, is not rated.

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