Swedish director Jan Troell will be 78 in July, and when he talks about his filmmaking choices, about where to spend "the last vestiges of his time and energy," it is not a theoretical concern. His hand, Troell says, "must be turned to something quite extraordinary," and with "Everlasting Moments," it definitely is.
Winner of five prizes at Sweden's academy awards, including best picture, "Everlasting Moments" is a rich, intensely human story that deals with the mysteries of creativity and love and the pain and joy of relationships.
It is a narrative film made the old-fashioned way, with all the sureness, understanding of life and command of the medium that come with more than 40 years of filmmaking. Plus something more.
Troell's films have, of course, come to this country before. He's had three nominated for the best foreign-language Oscar, and his 1971 Liv Ullmann-starring "The Emigrants" had five academy nominations, including best picture and director. But this time, the story he's chosen to tell has a personal connection, and that has made it if anything more deeply felt.
"Everlasting Moments," as its title hints, tells the story of a photographer, but a most unusual one, a Swedish working-class wife and mother at the turn of the last century who won a camera in a lottery and saw it ever so gradually transform her life.
The woman, Maria Larsson, is related to Troell's wife, who extensively interviewed Maria's daughter, Maja, who functions as the narrator in "Everlasting Moments." Though all Troell's films have the clear-eyed ability to divorce emotion from sentiment, there is the sense about this one that it meant something special to those who made it.
Perhaps because it means so much, Troell has made sure to lavish attention on the creation of time and place, on duplicating the ambience of Malmo, Sweden, in the years before, during and after the first World War. Serving as his own cinematographer (along with Mischa Gavrjusjov), Troell has come up with a whole series of images -- a huge zeppelin throwing a shadow over a neighborhood, a ghostly street car appearing out of a snowy night -- that are magical.
Though protagonist Maria (Maria Heiskanen) will eventually see the magic in her Contessa camera, won in a lottery soon after she meets future husband Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt), initially she is so caught up in her hard life with her spouse and their ever-increasing family that she more or less forgets she owns it.
That's because by the time we meet Sigfrid in 1907 he's already become a falling-down-drunk alcoholic who, to make things worse, has developed both a wandering eye and a taste for socialist politics that leads him and his fellow dockworkers to go out on strike.
The resulting fiscal crisis gets Maria to think of selling the camera, but when she nervously visits the local photography shop run by Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), he has other ideas. He shows Maria how to use the camera, gives her supplies and gets her involved in the gentle art of taking pictures. "It's our secret," he tells her conspiratorially, and so it for a time remains.
What's unsaid is that we can sense a real emotional connection forming between these two, but anyone expecting mad passionate outbursts, or even palpable romance, has come to the wrong movie, and not just because both Maria and Pedersen are married and attached to their spouses even though logically they shouldn't be.
For "Everlasting Moments" is not a bolt out of the blue movie, where everything irrevocably changes overnight. Echoing the way photographs are developed in the darkroom, only gradually does picture taking make changes in Maria's life, only little by little does she accept that she has "the gift of seeing" and, in Pedersen's words, "if you're a person who sees, you have no choice but to do so."
Though that process, helped enormously by Heiskanen's exquisitely alive performance, takes awhile, it doesn't take but five minutes of exposure to "Everlasting Moments' " pleasures for us to know that that time is going to be well spent. We know almost at once that we'll be both happy to go with this film wherever it chooses and not be disappointed when it gets there.
MPAA rating: No rating; in Swedish, with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours,
Playing: At the Landmark in West Los Angeles, Laemmle's Playhouse in Pasadena and Laemmle's Town Center in Encino.