Sin is downright depressing in 'The Ox'

April 16, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Oh, those wacky Scandinavians! What a zany lot! Inside every silver lining there's a dark cloud; it's always lightest until the darkness dawns; why suffer tomorrow when you can suffer today and tomorrow!

The latest depression-o-rama from the Northlands arrives in the "The Ox," a deliciously oppressive and crushingly lugubrious work from Ingmar Bergman's long-time cinemato- grapher, Sven Nykvist. The film will be shown tonight at 9 at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the 24th International Film Festival.

What a happy bunch of guys Sven and Ingmar must have been!

Ingmar: I'm a masochist -- hit me!

Sven: I'm a sadist -- no!

As to be expected, the movie is the dour and grim account of a sin and its consequences. Over a frozen winter's day (Christmas, actually) in the 19th century, Helge (Stellan Skarsgard) can no longer stand the cries of his starving baby, so he goes out into the front yard where his employer's ox has wandered, picks up a sledgehammer and before you can say "moo cow go bye-bye" hews the beast such a thump on the noggin that it sinks earthward with nary a shiver.

Of course, he and his wife are ridden with guilt; they eat the beast but live pathetically with their neighbors' suspicion, their society's censure and, worse, the moralistic admonitions of the minister (Max von Sydow).

In this sin-haunted society, law enforcement is hardly necessary. In short order, the jig is up, on no stronger principal than the weight of guilt crushing the perpetrator into making a grotesque confession, and poor Helge is off to a life sentence (for killing a cow!).

Nykvist keeps the story almost parable-simple, although the performances and the production are uniformly complex and commanding. He is primarily a cameraman, however, and so "The Ox" feels more like a visualization of sin than an examination of it. His master -- Bergman -- was the man who could penetrate the sinner's brow like a laser and take us through grotesque inner lives; Nykvist is more content to observe from afar. It's like a view of sin through a zoom lens, darkly. The piece is also very short, more of a short story than a novel in the 19th-century tradition.

The earlier show at the festival (7 p.m.) is "Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography," an examination of the cameraman's contribution to film culture.

For ticket information, call (410) 889-1993.

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