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.
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.
By this time we have been well prepared for Maria's transformation. Her photography, which began as a lark under the doting guidance of Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), the camera store owner, expands into a self-defining preoccupation – a passion (in spite of herself). It's also a source of much-needed income, but even her commissioned group pictures and Christmas portraits seem like emanations of something thrilling and profound within her. As it must be true of all great photographers, Maria at times seems dumbstruck by the beauty she has brought forth on film. (The images that emerge from nothingness in her darkroom have a blooming, magical efflorescence.) Without her entirely being aware of it, Maria intuits that her artistry is also her salvation.
Troell doesn't sentimentalize Maria's aspirations, which are, in many ways, unfulfilled. Nor does he simplify the psychological intricacies of her union with Sigfrid, whom she stays with against all apparent reason. Theirs is a marriage of almost Strindbergian complication. The real love story in "Everlasting Moments" is the unspoken one between Maria and Sebastian, her true soul mate. He can't make her follow him, for to do so would go against every familial instinct she has. Their parting, as he dawdles out of her life forever down a country road, unaware that her eyes are on him, is sorrowful beyond words.
Troell is one of the world's master directors. I have been championing his movies for more than 30 years, ever since I saw his great two-part epic "The Emigrants" and "The New Land." Only a handful of his films have received theatrical distribution in America, though. That such a great artist, the equal of his fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman, should be relegated, for the most part, to the film festival circuit, is a cultural crime. His 1996 "Hamsun," starring Max von Sydow as the disgraced Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun, who sided with the Nazis, is probably the least-known masterpiece of the past 20 years. And yet, against all odds and the vagaries of the movie business, Troell, at 78, continues to turn out films that will last for as long as there are movies. No wonder he feels such a deep connection to Maria in "Everlasting Moments." The film is one hero's salute to another. Grade: A (Not rated.)