Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments is as magical as it is realistic, because Troell has his own particular gift of second sight. As he demonstrated in three epics, The Emigrants, The New Land and The Flight of the Eagle, Troell's ecstasy for the physical world imbues it with a spiritual dimension. The people in his movies - vital, sensual figures - carry an illumination that emerges from within and joins with sun, rain, ice and snow. What makes him a theatrical artist and not some grueling naturalist is that supernal glow.
It has never burned brighter than in Everlasting Moments, a portrait of the artist as a working-class mother. Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) is a born photographer with a talent for seeing things whole. When a neighbor asks her to take a picture of her daughter in her coffin, Maria, in a run-through, captures the neighborhood kids crowding a window for a peek at the dead.
Photography sustains Maria as she raises seven children in a sometimes-awful marriage. The locations lack the usual Troell grandeur. The story unfolds in the port city of Malmo in southern Sweden, where, in 1907, Maria's alcoholic husband, Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt), labors first on the docks, then in stables. Yet the movie overflows with creative miracles, especially when the battered Maria goes looking for a haven from Sigge with her children. The white-gold beams of an electric streetcar slicing through an urban snowfall lend a mythic heroism to Maria, who even then is dazzled by the light.
The red that throbs through the shadows of Maria's darkroom rouses Sigge's fear and wonder. When the narrator, their oldest daughter, Maja (Callin Ohrvall), eyes a boy through water-soaked fish-market glass, the liquid imagery captures the fun-house glee of a girl's first rapture. Throughout, Troell's tender alertness is the directorial equivalent of love.
That love centers on Maria, who embodies the power of aesthetic delight to enlarge everyday life or make its torments bearable. She has been a housekeeper and a seamstress, but when photography pays the bills, it anchors her pride. Troell based Maria on a member of his wife Agneta's family (Agneta Troell shares the story credit). And Heiskanen gives a performance that's more like the transmigration of Maria's soul. Even the brightness of her eyes adjusts to the emotional demands of every scene. She makes an audience feel the elation Maria finds in the glint of icicles or in the ardent attention of a cultured photographer (Jesper Christensen).
Amazingly, Troell's love extends to Sigge, too. Troell doesn't whitewash the atrocities of this abusive husband. Jealous of the photographer's bond with his wife, Sigge, at his peak of masculine lunacy, holds a knife to Maria's throat. But Troell sees Sigge's alcoholism as a disease and his infidelity and brawling as a form of self-medication for a hemmed-in proletariat life. Sigge can't abide frustration or embrace the complications of the early 20th century; he's a vigorous animal most at home tending to horses. With them, he does have an Edenic grace.
Watching Sigge saunter through Malmo's streets with his mistress, a viewer wishes this wandering spouse could be just as carefree with his wife. By the end, Troell grants that wish. Everlasting Moments is a masterpiece with a texture and feeling unlike any other movie. The film imbues its harried, haunted characters with a down-home majesty.
Everlasting Moments **** (4 STARS)
(IFC Films) Starring Jesper Christensen, Maria Heiskanen. Directed by Jan Troell. Unrated. Time 131 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles.