FILM APRIL 1, 2009
Sony Pictures Classics
The best films I know by the greatly gifted Jan Troell, who is Swedish, are set in the Scandinavian past. Here's Your Life takes place in Sweden during World War I; The Emigrants and The New Land form a diptych about nineteenth-century Swedish immigrants; Hamsun is of course about the Norwegian writer who died in 1952. Merely to mention those films is to wish that every viewer knew them.
Now, after some years of absence--at least from the United States--here is Troell again with his latest visit to the past. Everlasting Moments takes place in the decade beginning in 1907, is set mostly in Malmo in southern Sweden, and is once again distinguished by this director's typical combination of loveliness and grit. The screenplay, by Troell and two others, focuses on a stratified society in which the working class knows its place but is beginning to know more.
One of the means through which this change arrives is especially congruent here. That means is photography. A camera figures in Troell's story and becomes a catalyst. Implicit in this change is a tremendous historical truth: the camera revised the scale of human values. Until it was invented, the chief way of recording faces, of preserving and sharing an individual's personal qualities, was a portrait done by an artist, and the subjects were preponderantly people of the upper classes. The camera, in a relatively short time, broke that exclusivity. Now every face was a possible subject. The porter, the mechanic, the laundry woman now shared the previous privilege of princes. Any face could become a memento of humanity. Can this huge change in the scale of individual importance have had no effect on society? Can it be sheer accident that photography arrived coincidentally with the nineteenth century's irruption in social and political turbulence?
Maria Larsson is a working-class bride who has won a camera in a lottery. She forgets about it as she plunges into a hectic life of housekeeping and mothering. (Eventually she has seven children.) Her husband, Sigfrid, is a husky dock laborer who is often brought home drunk and whose womanizing is no secret. Evidently his behavior is one kind of pattern in their world: Maria dislikes but accepts it in him as part of a working man's life. She accepts, too, his beating of her, which is apparently another part of her predetermined lot. Oddly, the children accept it, too. When Sigfrid is walloping Maria, they are frightened, but in a few minutes he is calmed and is hugging the kids whom he adores, and they respond affectionately.
Maria has no thought of leaving Sigfrid. Presumably she knows many other wives in similar situations. But one day she happens to come across that camera. Something more than curiosity takes hold. Subtly but persistently, she senses that if she follows it, she may open doors.
A Danish man named Pedersen runs a photography studio and shop in Malmo. Maria visits with her camera to learn how to use it, and slowly she and Pedersen become friends. There is no suggestion of an affair in the weeks to come, but as she learns more about the camera, there is a meeting of spirits. Maria is entering an enlarged world.
While this camera relationship is growing, Sigfrid is drafted into the army--World War I is simmering--but he never even gets a uniform. Sweden is neutral. He does, however, meet a political radical whom he likes but whose ideas do not win him. Sigfrid gives this radical the teasing nickname of the man's favorite author, Kropotkin. Sigfrid's brush with radicalism might have done for him what the camera did for Maria: altered his view of himself and his definition of fate. But it doesn't seriously affect him.
When Sigfrid discovers Maria's interest in photography and a photographer, he reacts as expected. After his outburst, her older children counsel her to leave him and join Pedersen, who is about to return to Denmark. Other factors enter. Her story ends with a self-portrait.
Troell's screenplay, as has often been the case with him, exists for the fullness of its texture, not for dramatic growth and resolution. We spend two hours-plus in a thoroughly plumbed environment, with its complications of sex, family love, accustomed stratification, possible social change. Conditioned as we are by expectations of form, we anticipate--perhaps unawares--certain developments. But a peculiar truth holds about a Troell film: it is not necessarily a cumulative drama with an organic resolution. Certainly Troell has a sense of the dramatic moment, but he sees it as a moment in a life that has other moments before and after--not as an element in a growing structure. Principally, with a Troell film, the viewer relishes some richly comprehended characters, marvelously presented. Ingmar Bergman, master dramatist though he was, once said that his chief interest in filmmaking was the human face. No wonder he admired this man.
Troell began as a cinematographer, and he has shot most of his films (including most of this one). In a film world where fine cinematography is now common, he is still exceptional. Light, light in itself, he obviously treats as one of his characters. (A passing instance: a shot of a dark street with a street lamp--a chiaroscuro incident--is unforgettable.) His sense of color is acute. In Everlasting Moments, we never feel that he is manipulating visually, yet we can see, especially in the scenes in the Larsson home, that the realism is keyed to a suggestion of sepia--which suggests the atmosphere of the place.
The three leading actors give us completed roles. Mikael Persbrandt makes Sigfrid a man who believes that his life of heavy labor and wife-beating and child-hugging, of drinking and whoring, is what heaven has assigned him. Jesper Christensen as the photographer is gentleness incarnate yet with no tick of sentimentality. Maria Heiskanen as Maria takes us along on her modest but exciting voyage of self-discovery. She enables us to imagine--we want to imagine--what she is not always displaying. She is a fitting actress for a director whose primary interest is communion.
Twelve Angry Men is a set of promises that are kept. That is the secret of its success--on television, stage, and screen. The opening minutes of Reginald Rose's piece show us twelve jurors in a locked room considering their verdict. Thus, automatically, it promises us that whatever verdict seems likely at first, the opposite verdict will finally prevail. Why else would we be there? Further, en route to that verdict each of the jurors will have an emotional aria related somehow to the issues of the trial. Why else would these particular men be there? Then we sit back and watch the work keep its word. The kitschy warmth at the end comes partly because the jury's action provides what an audience always likes to see--one more demonstration that human beings, these jurors and us, are basically decent people who merely need to think things over once in a while in order to be just. Another part of the warmth comes from the fact that we read the script's promises rightly and they were kept.
A new metamorphosis of Rose's play shows that this audience hunger for approval of itself is not an American monopoly. 12, based on Twelve Angry Men, is set in Moscow. Nikita Mikhalkov, actor and director and co-writer, has charged this version with a subject of outsize gravity. In Rose's original, the defendant is a Puerto Rican boy accused of killing his father. Here the defendant is a Chechen youth accused of killing his Russian stepfather. Thus a great deal more than one crime is implicitly involved.
Mikhalkov arranges matters so that, because of repair work in the courthouse, the jury has to meet in a high school gym. So he discards the steam-bath feeling of the compressed jury room to acquire chances for camera shenanigans, circlings of the table, contrasts between close-ups and long shots, and so on. It also gives him a chance for symbolism: a sparrow flies into the gym early on, flits about during the deliberations, and finally finds freedom again. Thus we learn--fortunate us--that the spirit has misadventures but must never give up.
Still, even the grave implications of Chechnya do not make the script any more than a moderately clever mechanism. What keeps the film vital is the acting. The characters are mixed. Mikhalkov himself plays the foreman of the jury with some dignity and poise. Also on hand are, among others, a surgeon, a cabbie, an engineer, and an actor; there is even a Holocaust survivor to evoke anti-Semitism in a juror who is there for us to dislike. Every one of these actors is versed in theater acting a la Russe. Like many actors from Eastern Europe, they know how to supply more than we are used to--in films, anyway--and make it valid. No gesture, no intonation, is left bland. And this vivid coloring underscores that the whole piece is much more theatrical than realistic.
It would be easy and mistaken to call these actors hams. Ham actors are bad actors, whether grand or laconic. These men are masters of a kind of acting that is spheres away from, say, the estimable De Niro and Duvall. There is more than one style of good acting (though we do not see much variety these days). When Bernard Shaw was a theater critic, he liked to go to a certain theater in London even though it specialized in sentimental drama because it had "good acting and plenty of it." He might have liked 12.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann