Lonely Farmer, 39, With Car, Seeks Lady. Send Photos.

Colin Nutley’s Swedish-made Under the Sun , which received an Academy Award  nomination last year as best foreign film, is

in every way a gentler, simpler and sweeter movie than another highly praised

Scandinavian film, Mifune , which did

not. From a screenplay by Mr. Nutley, in collaboration with Johanna Hald and

David Neal, and based on the short story “The Little Farm” by H. E. Bates, Under the

Sun doesn’t strain for laughs or even chuckles, but tells its story of

sexual awakening in midlife with a lyrical feeling for nature and all its

sensuous metaphors for human desire. The engaging sentiment is balanced with a

touch of suspenseful melodrama that remains true to its characters.

It is the summer of 1956 in the lush Swedish countryside.

Middle-aged Olof (Rolf Lassgård) is living alone on his family’s small farm

after the recent death of his mother. He can neither read nor write, and he has

never slept with a woman. He depends on a slyly teasing young friend named Erik

(Johan Widerberg) to help him with the chores around the farm and to do his

shopping in town. Erik plays the man of the world for the provincial Olof,

since he has been to sea many times and has worked in America.

Now he scrapes by with a part-time job as a gravedigger, and with the help of

Olof’s “temporary” loans.

One day Olof can bear his loneliness no longer, and so he

drives into town to place an advertisement in the local paper. He is too

embarrassed to admit that he can’t read or write when he asks the kindly newspaper receptionist (Gunilla Röör) to take down his

dictation for an ad: “Lonely farmer, 39, own car. Seeks young

lady housekeeper. Photograph appreciated.” The receptionist looks at

Olof with knowing sympathy. When Olof returns the following week, there are two

responses to his ad: The first comes without a photo, and the receptionist

crinkles her face in comic negation when Olof asks her advice. It is a moment

of spiritual communion. Fortunately, the second reply comes with a stunning

photograph, which we never see because the action cuts immediately to Ellen

(Helena Bergström) at the train stop, waiting for Olof to pick her up. She is

attractive beyond his wildest dreams, and he cannot believe his good luck. She

seems amused by his shyness and awkwardness, but always with a smile of

friendly curiosity.

When Erik catches sight of Ellen, he is immediately hostile

and suspicious. He warns Olof to watch his step, since Ellen is clearly after

something besides the unimposing Olof. Erik’s cynical courtship of a local girl

named Lena (Linda Ulvaeus) runs parallel to Ellen’s

generous opening up of herself to Olof. Since Lena

slightly resembles Ellen in their mutual blondness, a strange thought crossed

my mind: Was Mr. Nutley creating a shrewd misunderstanding for the benefit of

the coming attractions to make it seem that Erik and Olof were pursuing the

same woman?

As it happens, Erik is less a part of a triangle than he is

a petulantly mischievous poltergeist who, faced with the prospect of losing a

soft touch in Olof, unearths Ellen’s mystery and, by threatening to expose her,

almost breaks up the happy couple. To the end, Erik is a Class A name-dropper,

claiming to have met Elvis Presley, Grace Kelly and Greta Garbo-but when he

announces that he is shipping out on an Italian ocean liner, the ill-fated Andrea Doria , I wondered how many people

will realize that he is announcing his own doom and comeuppance?

Though filmed in Sweden, throughout Under

the Sun I felt an Irish mood, largely because of the distinctively Celtic

musical score of Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains. Combine that with Erik’s

showbiz Americanisms and Mr. Nutley’s strange background as a British-born,

British-bred and British-trained filmmaker relocated to Sweden, and you begin to wonder if this is still the land of Ingmar Bergman, and if there is still anything in the world that

answers to the definition of an authentic national cinema.

Behind the Music: Turandot

Allan Miller’s The

Turandot Project is a film I look forward to seeing again and again and

again. While working on a movie about Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, Mr. Miller

heard that Chinese film director Zhang Yimou and conductor Zubin Mehta were

joining forces to bring a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot to the stage in Florence.

He and his producer, Margaret Smilow, seized the opportunity to document the

director, the conductor and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence.

Zhang Yimou, never having directed an opera before Turandot , was the first to admit that he

would have to make many concessions to technicians with more experience in the

form. In the film, one of the technicians questions the wisdom of using a movie

director at all, though the technician concedes that, for young people around

the world, movies are the only medium and that opera has sadly been abandoned

to the oldsters.

Mr. Mehta recalls Zhang Yimou admitting, “I don’t know

anything about opera …. Mehta can do all the music … whatever is heard is up to

him, but what they see is mine.” When everyone decided to bring the production

to Beijing, Mr. Miller decided to

continue filming: “Mehta and Zhang Yimou just opened themselves up to us, or

let us pry them open,” he said.

By shooting both the Italian and Chinese productions of Turandot , Mr. Miller was able to show

Mr. Zhang constructing two extremely different interpretations of the opera. In

Florence,  Mr. Zhang chose to stage the opera

according to the helter-skelter traditions of the Peking

opera. Hence, all the costumes were made from different periods in order to be

more striking.

But when the production moved to Beijing,

and the opera was performed on a Ming Dynasty stage-temple, Mr. Zhang decided

that a massive change was necessary. “The Chinese would laugh you off the stage

if you showed 17th- or 18th-century costumes on a 15th-century stage.”

Consequently, thousands of local people had to be recruited to sew and

embroider new costumes for the opera, at a cost of about $600,000. Because the

stage provided by the Forbidden City was so vast, it was

able to accommodate every element of Mr. Zhang’s grandiose vision. Three

hundred Chinese soldiers from an army battalion dressed elaborately as Ming

Dynasty warriors, as well as acrobats who accompanied the action and onstage

Ming Dynasty drummers who announced the appearance of the Emperor, saturated

the huge stage with a literal recreation of a bygone era. But still Mr. Zhang

was not satisfied.

His fiercest quarrels were with a world-renowned Viennese

lighting expert who preferred the European-style selective illumination of the

key areas of dramatic emphasis. Mr. Zhang argued that this meant that much of

the stage would be darkened from time to time, and this would never do with

Chinese audiences, who preferred total illumination. At one point, Mr. Zhang

ruefully observed that it was much easier to direct a movie than to direct an

opera. On the movie set, his word was law and his orders were carried out

immediately, whereas on the opera set there were many conflicting voices,

making all sorts of compromises inevitable.

What comes through most strongly in The Turandot Project -besides the overpowering magnetic force of the

opera itself, its singers and musicians, and its

charismatically diplomatic conductor, Zubin Mehta-is the anxiety of Mr. Zhang

over the technical and artistic adequacy of his beloved Chinese people.

Ironically, Mr. Zhang was the greatest initial obstacle to the staging of Turandot in Beijing.

The government has never approved of Mr. Zhang because his films fail to show a

flattering portrait of Chinese society to outsiders. So here we are confronted

with the supreme irony of the forbidden director finally permitted to work in

the Forbidden City. And yet Mr. Zhang’s exhortations to

his Chinese subordinates ring with the urgency of a true patriot.

Of course, the music of Puccini (1858-1924), even in dribs

and drabs, has a lot to do with my unbridled enthusiasm for this account of the

fusion of two cultures, one based in Florence

and the other in Beijing. Mr.

Miller is an old hand at music documentaries, having directed 35; he’s won two

Academy Awards-for The Bolero and From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China -and an Emmy for his

film about classical violinist Itzhak Perlman. He also directed Small Wonders (1996), about violin

teacher Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, which received an Oscar nomination and

served as the basis for the feature-length movie Music of the Heart (1999), directed by Wes Craven and featuring

Meryl Streep, Aidan Quinn, Angela Bassett and Cloris Leachman. In spite of his

extraordinary track record in the genre, Mr. Miller says that filming Zhang

Yimou and Zubin Mehta in Turandot was

the culmination of all his work on music.

In the final analysis, however, it is not any one thing that

makes The Turandot Project a stirring

entertainment, but a glorious mix of things that

give rise to half-forgotten dreams of people of good will crossing national and

cultural borders and barriers to come together to complete a project bigger

than any individual, bigger than any ideology, bigger than any single

nationality. But is it only art that functions in this privileged realm? And if

so, can it be extended to treat all the world’s seemingly incurable

afflictions?

If only Ireland,

the Balkans, the Middle East, and so much of Africa

and Asia could be treated to the spectacle of smiling

Chinese translators mollifying the most temperamental of operatic divas,

perhaps world peace would at last be conceivable. Till then, the warm feelings

generated by The Turandot Project

will have to suffice.