March 3, 2009

Everlasting Moments

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Everlasting Moments

DRAMA:

Denmark/Finland/Norway/Sweden/Germany, 2008

U.S. Release Date:

2009-03-06

Running Length:

2:11

MPAA Classification:

NR (Mature Themes)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen, Emil Jensen, Ghita Norby, Hans Henrik Clemensen, Amanda Ooms

Director:

Jan Troell

Screenplay:

Niklas Rådström

Cinematography:

Mischa Gavrjusjov, Jan Troell

Music:

Matti Bye

U.S. Distributor:

IFC Films

Subtitles:

English subtitled Swedish and Finnish


A moment frozen in time through the lens of a camera - that's one of many images director Jan Troell uses to cement the foundation of his new period piece, Everlasting Moments. The chronicle of a woman who lived and died in the early part of the 20th century, this film covers the period between 1907 and 1921. Troell asks hard questions about love, fidelity, and responsibility and, perhaps most intriguingly, paints the portrait of a woman whose life could be considered a success or a tragedy, depending on the shading of the lens through which it is observed.

When we first encounter Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), she is a mother and the wife of Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrant), a hard-working, hard-drinking manual laborer. Although generally a good fellow, Sigfrid can become a tyrant when he has imbibed too much - something that happens with increasing regularity. Maria thinks about leaving him but words from her dying father about the sanctity of marriage ("what God has put together let not man put asunder") keep her at home. The film then follows her through good times and bad (more of the latter than the former), through war and peace (although Sweden stayed neutral during World War I), and through the births of many children. Maria's constant companion during these years is her camera, which she nearly sells at one point to put food on the table and which later becomes the means by which she earns money while her husband is in prison. Although she never fully grasps the artistic implications of her photography, she grows into her talent and, without realizing it, leaves behind images of simple beauty that will never fade. In the end, Maria does not become a famous photographer but her story is no less touching because of it.

As told through the eyes of her daughter, Maja (Callin Öhrvall), Maria's story is a slightly fictionalized account of a real woman. Had this tale not been related to Troell and had he not elected to commit it to film, Maria Larsson would have vanished into history the way nearly everyone not conventionally famous does. It's easy to understand what fascinated the director about this project, because Maria's story is not fundamentally unique. This is a representation of how millions lived 100 years ago. Their names have vanished into the mists of anonymity, but many of their faces - preserved through photographs - have not. To tell the story right, Troell does what all directors of period pieces do: effectively re-creates the era. And, as one would expect from a production that's about pictures and images, the director carefully establishes and frames every shot. He is, in fact, creating his own everlasting images.

As is often the case with foreign productions, the actors are largely unknown in the United States. Maria Heiskanen is memorable as the long-suffering, courageous Maria. The actress brings humanity and strength to her character without transforming Maria into a martyr. Explicitly left open is the question of whether Maria loves Sigfrid to the end, and Heiskanen's performance allows it to be read either way. Meanwhile, for his part, Mikael Persbrant finds some dignity and kindness in Sigfrid. He is not a monster (at least when he's sober) and he is not portrayed as such. Jesper Christensen has a supporting role as the kindly owner of a photography studio who falls in love with Maria.

Troell has been making films for more than 40 years and takes his time in between projects. Internationally, he is perhaps best known for 1971's The Emigrants, for which he received both Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscar nominations. His 1996 feature Hamsun was also well received around the globe. He has a keen visual sense, often serving as director, writer, cinematographer, and editor on his movies. Despite emerging from the country of Ingmar Bergman during the era of Bergman, he is not often compared to the master filmmaker, but there are elements of Everlasting Moments that echo aspects of Bergman's The Best Intentions (which Bergman wrote for director Bille August). Perhaps this is unsurprising since Bergman's parents (the subject of The Best Intentions) married in the Sweden depicted in this movie.

There's something old-fashioned about Everlasting Moments. Although the shots are beautifully composed, they are classically represented. Both the filmmaking methods and the storytelling are uncomplicated. There's nothing flashy about either one of them. Troell's goal is to tell Maria's tale and he succeeds. To the extent that he conveys information about the time, place, and politics of the era, these are all necessary to flesh out Maria's three-dimensionality and make her world seem real. Period pieces like this were once more popular than they are today. It is refreshing to see a solid one like this from time-to-time.

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