Erick C. Bengel: 'Everlasting Moments'

Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments" evokes the richness and sweep of an historical epic without the usual pretentions to greatness. It is great, let's be clear, but the film never announces it. Only at its mysterious conclusion do we apprehend how steadily, and how completely, Troell casts his sympathetic spell. Each scene vibrates with the voyeuristic authenticity of Bergman, and each shot burns into our memory like a cherished antique photograph.

The film opens in Malmo, Sweden, in 1907. Maria (Maria Heiskanen) and her husband Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) live in poverty near the docks with their children. Maria works part-time as a housecleaner for the upper class. Once a sailor, Sigfrid now works odd, often hazardous, jobs like shoveling coal. Income, if not employment, is always uncertain, but together Maria and Sigfrid manage to provide for their children and send them to school.

One day, Maria uncovers a camera she once won in a lottery but never used. She brings it to a photography studio where she hopes to pawn it for food money. The owner, Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), is a humble, generous man who offers to buy the camera from Maria in exchange for her promise to look after it for him and take pictures in her spare time. She is quietly tickled to have a secret hobby and is surprised to find she has a natural talent.

But this is not the story of a woman who rises above her socioeconomic hardship to become a professional photographer. It is the story of a perennially abusive marriage, and of how Maria's interest in photography acts as a bulwark against her emotional implosion. Her newly acquired art gives her something to smile about, an activity that is her very own, while the rest of her life's clutter jeopardizes her sense of dignity.

The actors deliver unnervingly realistic performances. As Sigfrid, Persbrandt gives us the complex portrayal of a simple man. "Sigge" is not the standard wife-battering villain but someone who, on a primitive level, knows how pathetic he is. To love him is to tolerate a host of failings that are often more trouble than they're worth. By fits and starts, he is a responsible and benevolent father. He is also a rambunctious alcoholic with a penchant for embarrassing his wife and children before their friends and teachers. When he feels especially emasculated by work and poverty, he beats Maria and threatens to kill her. But, God save him, he loves her.

Heiskanen as Maria approaches a level of effortless sincerity that we can scarcely call "acting." Watching this character develop her talent over many years, we notice the barely perceptible changes in Maria's behavior that finally amount to a full character arc, from defeated, put-upon housewife to brave, self-respecting artist. This transformation occurs rather late in her life, but it almost doesn't occur at all. If not for photography, her only creative outlet might have been to continually invent fresh reasons to honor a dysfunctional marriage.

Why does Maria remain with Sigfrid instead of pursue an independent career? Fair question. It's easy for us to contemplate Maria's road-not-taken. We have that luxury. As we get to know these characters, we become conscious of their opportunities missed and compromises made for the sake of the family. The triumph of "Everlasting Moments" lies in its power to make us understand why this — and only this — arrangement must be so. These characters have duties that supersede their loves and ambitions, not least of which is their duty to survive as a unit despite their petty dreams.

The message, I believe, is that we must find ways to animate our inner lives while making the best of our outer lives. The brutality of fortune pulls Maria in ever-shifting directions. Yet she leaves behind the legacy of a woman who found personal emancipation through her art — perhaps the only thing that fully heals her from within.