For the cinephile, discovering a new film by famed Swedish director Jan Troell (one of this year's Telluride tributees) is a lot like eating a perfectly made truffle after a lifetime of mass-produced candy bars. His latest effort, Everlasting Moments, was like that for me; it's that rare cinematic experience that you settle back, bite into, and then savor as the subtle richness of the film cleanses the palate and fills the soul.
Based on the real-life story of Troell's wife's grandmother, the film takes us through the life of Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen, in a remarkable performance), a belabored mother of a large brood in the early days of the 20th century who finds renewed passion and intellectual independence through a Contessa camera she wins in a lottery. The camera sits for many years unused until one day, Maria takes it into the shop of the local photographer, Sebastien Pederson (Jesper Christensen), to sell it to help pay the rent.
The kindly Pederson shows Maria how to use the camera, and once she starts using it, she begins to see the world through a whole new lens. Finding herself unable to resist continuing to learn and improve her eye as a photographer, Maria becomes obsessed with capturing the little moments of life around her through the miraculous ability to capture living moments in still images.
Although life with perpetually abusive, drunken and philandering husband Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt) is a constant challenge, Maria finds through her photography a measure of independence and dignity that frees her mentally from the grimness of her situation. Soon she finds herself something of a village celebrity, being called upon to capture with her camera everything from Christmas photos of entire families to the Victorian death portrait of a child.
The film, like much of Troell's work, is epic in scope, focusing on working class people against the backdrop of the socialist revolution, worker strikes, poverty and the Great War; at the same time, this film is very intimate and personal, telling the story of this one woman against the broader canvas. Beautifully shot in a muted tone that evokes both the time period and its working-class setting, the film captures both the beauties and tragedies in the lives of Maria and her children, while the finely structured narrative connects the audience with the courageous, deeply empathetic Maria.
The film is very difficult to watch at times; Troell immerses us in Maria's life, in particular her relationship with her violent husband, and it's a bit of an emotional challenge to watch this otherwise intelligent, vibrant woman continue to stay with a man who beats her in violent jealous rages while pursuing other women himself, and even threatening to kill her in front of their children. Fortunately, though, Maria's spunk and spirit are always at the forefront of the tale, and Troell's expert storytelling and some outstanding performances combine to keep the film from feeling overly bleak.
Everlasting Moments turned out to be one of the hits of Telluride; after a sparsely attended initial screening, word of mouth started to spread on the gondola and in lines; the next screening, held in a much larger venue, was packed, and the fest ended up having to add TBA screenings to accommodate the crowds demanding to see the film. Very positive critical response and overall buzz from Telluride should help the film pop when it opens to the cinephile crowds at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival. If you're attending the fest yourself and wondering which of the 270 or so films to work into your schedule, Everlasting Moments is one to put at the top of your list.