***This review contains spoilers***
I have an old photograph of my mother when she was five years old walking down the Boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1930 with my grandparents and I often wonder what their lives were like at that moment in time. Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments" attempts to do just that as he brings old family photographs to life in his sweeping family saga set in Sweden at the turn of the century.
Everlasting Moments begins in the Swedish port city of Malmo in 1907. It's a true story based on the reminiscences of Maja Larrson who is the film's narrator. She takes us back to when she was a child and we're introduced to her parents Maria and Sigfrid (Siggie) Larrson. Siggie is a dock worker who also happens to be an alcoholic. Maria (wonderfully played by Maria Heiskanen) is his long-suffering wife. Although Siggie belongs to the Temperance Society he is continually relapsing and most of the tension in the film's first half revolves around the harrowing scenes of domestic violence in which Siggie uses his wife as a veritable punching bag.
Maria is under tremendous pressure, not only from the heartache of having to deal with her often drunk and philandering husband but also raising a brood of precocious children. One day Maria rediscovers an expensive camera that she and her husband had won in a lottery at the time they got married. She decides to take a picture of her children without her husband knowing about it and brings it to a local photography shop and meets the kindly shop owner, Sebastian Pedersen. Pederson is a bit older than Maria but they soon form a lasting friendship. Pedersen eventually shows Maria how to use the camera and develop pictures.
Meanwhile, we get a real feel for the history of the times as we see what happens to Siggie as he becomes involved with Socialist and Communist agitators who seek to unionize dockworkers in their fight against the shipowners. At one point British scabs are brought in and one of the strike breakers is murdered. Siggie is a suspect for a short while but is cleared after a local floozy who he's been having an affair with provides an alibi.
To Siggie's chagrin, Maria presses forward with her fascination with photography. Eventually she starts earning extra money taking photos of people in the community. In one sad and sensitive scene, Maria declines to charge a woman who asks her if she could take a picture of her daughter who has just died after falling through the ice wandering too far out on to a not so frozen pond. The image of the deceased girl is one of the many striking images of still photography seen in this film.
Things come to a head when Siggie suspects that Maria has been having an affair with Pedersen and brutally rapes her. As a result, Marie is pregnant with another child who ends up with polio. Finally, Siggie takes things too far and drags Maria outside and almost slits her throat with a knife. As a result, he's arrested and thrown in jail (presumably there were neighbors who were witnesses to this horrible act but we never see them nor are there any scenes of Siggie being arrested and brought before a magistrate).
While I expected Maria to leave her husband and go off on her own running her own photography business, that's not what happens in the film's denouement. Instead, Maria stops taking photos for quite awhile and loses contact with Pedersen after the family moves to a different part of town. After Siggie gets out of jail, Maria decides to stick it out with him. Some say it was Maria's memories of her father exhorting her never to leave her husband since it was "God's will" or perhaps it was simply Maria's conservative nature. More likely it was Siggie eventually becoming more mature. He gives up the bottle, starts running a successful moving company and becomes a decent family man. It should be pointed out that Siggie is only a monster when he's drunk. Other times he's shown to be a sensitive man (in one scene, he prevents a man from abusing a horse in the street).
Maria's farewell to Pedersen is a poignant and bittersweet moment in the film. The two part knowing that their relationship was never meant to go further than it did. Pederson's shop is like an oasis for Maria while she's trying to cope with her husband in the early years. Although Pedersen is not a very 'exciting' character, and there's little conflict between the two, he's a soothing and supporting presence, contrasting nicely with the brutal and oppressive Siggie.
Some of the other characters in the film are not sufficiently developed. Siggie's 'anarchist' buddy who commits suicide due to an fulfilled life is one such character. Maja, the film's narrator, has a brief scene where she's almost molested by an employer while working as a housekeeper and then there's the youngest son who's briefly seen trying to cope with the ravages of polio--these characters and scenes seem almost like afterthoughts.
Nonetheless, 'Everlasting Moments' is still filled with indelible, everlasting moments and images (especially check out the effect that Charlie Chaplin had on the Larrson family--that's a scene you won't forget!). Jan Troell's look into the past is not sentimental but more wistful. And even more important, he teaches us about the trials, tribulations and the sacrifices made by the older generation as they stumbled into a firm and rewarding maturity.