Jan Troell's "Fanny & Alexander"? The latest from a master opens in the Bay Area this week. (Photo by Nille Leander, courtesy IFC Films)

Troell in Fine Form with 'Everlasting Moments'

Dennis Harvey March 12, 2009

In the early 1970s it looked like Jan Troell was "the new Bergman"—not that Ingmar himself was anywhere near finished yet. Starting out as a cinematographer (a role he’d keep on most of his own films), he made two acclaimed first features before the epic—as long as 6 1/2 hours in some cuts—diptych of 1971’s The Emigrants and 1972’s The New Land. Starring Bergman’s favorite actors Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow as poor 19th century Swedish immigrants struggling to reach and survive in the American frontier, both films won numerous international awards and Oscar nominations (including Best Picture for Emigrants).

But Troell was not especially prolific, or flamboyant, with the result that—even in Sweden—he was sometimes taken for granted or simply forgotten. Thus his latest movie Everlasting Moments, which opens at Bay Area theaters today, may well prove for many an introduction to a 78-year-old filmmaker who’s been directing features since 1966.

"Moments" could be considered Troell’s Fanny & Alexander—not to torture the Bergman corollaries to death—though it’s less specifically autobiographical. In fact, it’s based on the memoirs of a woman his wife Agneta met a couple decades ago, an elderly lady who’d grown up in a working-class suburb not far different from the director’s native one. There’s a familiarity, bittersweet nostalgia and fondness for eccentric character, as well as the period setting, that recalls Fanny. But if Bergman’s official swansong hit a rare celebratory note in an otherwise angst-ridden ouevre, Everlasting Moments is, typically for Troell, gentler in both laughter and tears even as it sprawls across decades.

Narrated by eldest daughter Maja (modeled on the real memoir-penning Maja), it chronicles early 20th-century travails of the Larsson family, which is as consistently fertile as it is lucklessly broke. Mama Maria (a luminous Maria Heiskanen) is their pillar of quiet strength by necessity— somebody’s got to hold things together with (eventually) seven young mouths to feed.

Ergo she scrimps and sews and cleans rich people’s houses while husband Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt) bounces from one unreliable low-end job to the next, with plenty of unemployed downtime between. He’s a kind, enthusiastic if not especially bright man with one big flaw: He turns into a reckless brute when drinking, and his temperance vows never last very long.

Over the years (the movie roughly covers the period 1900-1920, though, disconcertingly, the adult characters scarcely age) Maria is tempted to leave him. When domestic life improves greatly during Sigge’s military-service absence, even their children urge her to cut the marital cord.

Yet some stubborn loyalty remains, despite his periodic batterings and the glimmering promise of a different life with Mr. Pedersen (Jesper Christensen). The latter is a photo shop proprietor and middle-aged widower whom Maria meets when trying to pawn a camera she’s won in a lottery. Instead, he persuades her to use it in recording the histories of her own and her neighbor’s families—a discreetly romantic urge toward creativity unlike anything she has or likely will experience from blustering Sigge.

Everlasting Moments
is a lovely film full of grace moments, though without major set pieces (not even when World War I arrives). While sparing no period detail, Troell keeps everything emotionally intimate. The lead performances are wonderful, the handling of many child actors charming.

If this latest piques your interest in the director’s back pages, well, the obvious place to start is with The Emigrants and New Land. Troell had an ill-fortuned sojourn into Hollywood with two flops, though neither are anywhere near as bad as their reputation. Zandy’s Bride (1974) had Ullmann as a mail-order bride delivered to brutish California cattleman Gene Hackman; beautifully shot and slowly paced just like those two prior hits, one suspects it wouldn’t have been dismissed as "boring" had it been in Swedish.

Outright vitriol greeted 1979’s Hurricane, a Dino de Laurentiis-produced costume-drama-cum-disaster-flick remake of the 1937 John Ford potboiler to which Troell was hired at the last minute (when Roman Polanski’s statutory rape case forced him to bow out). Starring Mia Farrow, Von Sydow and others, it was considered an expensive, lifeless South Seas romance/soap opera juiced only by the big tropical-storm climax. But at the time I thought it quite lyrical and sweet—more a grownup Blue Lagoon than an island-set Earthquake.

Troell has spent the three decades since making both documentary and narrative features at a relaxed pace. Few have gotten U.S. distribution, notably two historical pieces starring Von Sydow: Oscar-winning Flight of the Eagle (1982), chronicling a hot-air balloon expedition to the North Pole, and Hamsun (1996), about the great Norwegian writer.

Docs, shorts and omnibus segments included, Jan Troell has only directed 20 films in 43 years. Like 80-year-old Von Sydow (who is slated to star in his next movie), he apparently has no desire to retire. Let’s hope he keeps cranking ‘em out for some time still.