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Everlasting Moments
Running time 131 minutes
Written and
directed by Jan Troell
Starring Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt

Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, from a screenplay by Niklas Rådström (in Swedish with English subtitles), is based on the true story of Maria (Maria Heiskanen) and Sigfrid Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), who were married in 1907 and eventually bore seven children, the last two of which were the products of marital rapes. As the 77-year-old writer-director explains the genesis of his remarkable film in his Director’s Statement: “Everlasting Moments is the result of an involvement that began as far back as 1986 when my wife, Agneta, met Maja, the eldest daughter of Maria, the film’s central character, who was also Agneta’s father’s aunt. Maria was a poverty-stricken working-class woman with seven children who won a camera in a lottery and thereafter photographed the life around her through the rest of her life. Agneta realized this could become a marvellous book and interviews Maja up to her death at the ripe old age of 92.

“I, too, realized this was unique material about life in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century. The description of the importance of photography really gripped me, as I have been a devotee of photography since the tender age of 14. The fantastic Fellini-like gallery of characters also fascinated me, so did the social perspective.”

In some ways, the film is a cautionary feminist horror story about a dutiful, stoical housewife who endures the alcoholic abuse of a philandering husband, both for the sake of her children and to be in accordance with her deeply held religious faith. Hence, when she wins a camera in the lottery, her first impulse is to sell it in order to buy food for her children. When she takes it to a photography shop, Sebastian Pedersen, the kindly proprietor, known to his customers as “Piff Paff Puff,” asks her to take a picture with the camera before she decides to sell it. He soon discovers that Maria has an aptitude for seeing the world with new eyes, and encourages her to continue.

Eventually, Maria’s husband feels threatened by both Maria’s obsessive vocation and her growing intimacy with Pedersen, though Maria’s religious convictions prevent her from responding to Pedersen’s polite advances. Finally, when Sigfrid sees Maria’s picture in a store window, while he is in the company of a barroom hussy, he is enraged to such an extent that he puts a knife to Maria’s throat, after which she summons the police, and he is briefly imprisoned.

Nonetheless, he is not treated as an absolute villain. He takes part in a futile strike and professes radical beliefs. He is very strong and hardworking, and has a special affinity for the humane treatment of horses. In a strange way, Maria’s unflinching loyalty to him somehow ennobles him.

At one point, Maria tries to abort a child produced by her being raped. When the child is born anyway, she becomes tearfully guilt-ridden about having tried to snuff out the boy’s life. Her enormous capacity for love is thereby shown to be truly saintly. When Maria dies, she leaves behind a pictorial heritage of her life and times in a stormy period of Swedish history. In her performance as Maria under Mr. Troells’ direction, Maria Heiskanen herself become the centerpiece of the magical arts of photography and cinematography, preserving, enhancing and ennobling an otherwise unsung heroine of a bygone time.

asarris@observer.com

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