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Review: 'Everlasting Moments'

An emotionally resonant story about a Swedish mother whose passion for photography offers her an escape from an oppressive marriage.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2009

Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments" is about a turn-of-the-century Swedish woman, Maria Larsson (the magnificent Maria Heiskanen), who tries to escape the indignities of her life by taking photographs. She's just an amateur really, but, as a flattering camera shop owner friend tells her, "Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing." Her fate, glorious and maddening, is to see with the utmost clarity both the miseries and joys of her existence.

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Maria Larsson was the real-life great-aunt of Troell's wife, Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband and Niklas Radström. This helps to explain why "Everlasting Moments" has such emotional resonance. It is, in the deepest sense, a family affair. Ulfsäter-Troell, who was the guiding force behind the project, spent six years, starting in 1986, interviewing Maria's oldest daughter, Maja, about her mother. From the wealth of personal reminiscence that poured out, the filmmakers shaped Maria's story from 1907 over the course of about a decade. Few movies give as powerful a rendering of the passage of time on a life.

On the most superficial level, that life is mundane, and yet the closer we get to it, the more harrowing and transcendent it seems. (Maja acts as the film's narrator.) Her marriage to the abusive, alcoholic Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) is the film's centerpiece. A burly dockworker, Sigfrid is her spiritual (and physical) opposite. (The relationship, in film terms, may owe something to the pairing of Anthony Quinn and Guilietta Masina in Fellini's "La Strada.") The couple's seven children are like watchful cherubs in a purgatory of their parents' own design. With uncomprehending eyes they observe the ardor and cruelties that alternate in the lives of Maria and Sigfrid. When life is good – when, for example, this poverty-stricken family, flush with good cheer, is gamboling at a lakeside picnic – we could be watching a rapturous evocation of domestic bliss. At the opposite extreme, we watch in horror along with the children as Sigfrid, enraged at Maria for some imagined slight, forces her to the ground at knifepoint. In a sequence like this, the true terror of marital abuse hits home.

Throughout it all, Maria emerges as a heroine of the most inexplicable and resolute sort. Although she glories in her children, she did not ask for this life. And although decorousness is almost a moral value with her, she does not often meekly acquiesce to Sigfrid's demands. She's no dishrag. When he attacks her, she puts him in prison for attempted murder, and she discovers new emotional possibilities in herself. With Sigfrid gone, Maria and the children are even more penurious, and yet it is as if a shroud has been lifted. The air seems brighter, numinous.