At first blush, “Everlasting Moments” might sound like a litany of art-house film clichés. Set in Sweden in the early 20th century, its saga of a quiet, strong-willed woman and her lout of a husband is pretentious enough to starch a collar, but the film transcends the sum of its well-worn plot. The great Swedish director Jan Troell, whose works include 1971’s masterpiece “The Emigrants,” creates a movie that is elegiac, exquisite and, appropriately enough, filled with moments that linger in the memory.
The film, which screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is based on the story of Troell’s wife’s great-aunt. The director’s deep personal connection to the work is palpable. Our heroine is Maria (Maria Heiskanen), a Finnish native with the misfortune of being married to dockworker Sigfrid Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt). She raises their impoverished, ever-expanding brood while “Sigge,” as he is called, succumbs to booze and barmaids.
Money is a continual struggle for the family. Maria, who works as a maid and seamstress, eventually visits a local photography store in hopes of selling a pricey Contessa camera she won years earlier in a lottery.
The proprietor of the store, a courtly older gentleman named Pedersen (Jesper Christensen, “Quantum of Solace”), senses something in Maria ” perhaps an untapped longing for self-expression. Persuading her not to sell it, Pedersen instead teaches her how to use the camera. Maria discovers she is a natural. “Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing,” Pedersen tells her admiringly.
There is an unspoken but obvious affection between these two timid people. Maria’s exploration as an amateur photographer provides her a life outside the realm of the abusive Sigge, especially when he becomes preoccupied by a labor strike and notions of socialism. Maria’s confidence behind the camera lens bleeds into her life outside of photography, as her artistic awakening is observed by her eldest daughter, Maja (newcomer Callin Öhrval), who narrates the movie.
Episodic and deliberately paced, “Everlasting Moments” embraces the telling, finely detailed observations that reflect the beauty in the seemingly prosaic. The 78-year-old Troell, who serves as his own cinematographer along with Mischa Gavrjusjov, allows the camera to linger on fleeting but gorgeous imagery. An ostracized young girl runs on an icy lake and evaporates into a blinding white fog. A dirigible floats across a cloudless sky, casting its long shadow over the town.
The actors are just as affecting. Heiskanen’s face conveys Maria’s stalwart capacity to endure hardship, but she is also imbued with the fragility that reacts to Mr. Pedersen’s kindness. Equally impressive is Persbrandt. He has the perhaps more challenging task of finding the humanity in what easily could be a caricature of a brute.
Ultimately, “Everlasting Moments” is all about celebrating, and capturing, humanity’s carousel of triumph and sorrow. Don’t miss it. “Phil Bacharach