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
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
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
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
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.