Friday March 7, 1997
Who doesn't know the pleasures of time spent with a great fat novel, one of those sprawling epics that's not shy about taking its time? "Jerusalem" is just such an unapologetically old-fashioned film. At two hours and 46 minutes, it's a long slog at a stately pace, but the kinds of satisfactions it offers don't come any faster, at least not in this life.
Taken from a two-volume novel by Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, "Jerusalem" is adapted for the screen and directed by Bille August, who does a considerably better job here than he did on "Smilla's Sense of Snow."
It's not that the source material was intrinsically better but rather that August, working with a Swedish-speaking cast primarily for a Northern European market, has been able to bring a vivid sense of place and authenticity to the production. Scandinavian to the core, this film has the kind of reality that big transatlantic budgets cannot buy, a visual context that grounds the story and strengthens it.
Not that "Jerusalem" is some kind of stark and bloodless affair. It's rife with melodrama and contrivance from start to finish, featuring everything from arranged marriages and attempted murders to visions both sacred and profane, a secret birth, a family curse, inheritances lost and found and even a case of hysterical paralysis. But the cast, most of whom are unfamiliar to American audiences, plays it with such conviction that it is not difficult to go along for the ride.
Serving as an interesting counterbalance to the narrative hokum is the core of "Jerusalem," a story about the persuasiveness of religious faith, its coercive power and its human limitations. The film is also a tripartite love story, concerned with love of God and love of land as well as the love between man and woman.
Even as little children, raised together in a turn-of-the-century Swedish village though not actually brother and sister, Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) and Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie) seem destined to marry. But the dance that brings them together also sounds a cautionary note: It's disrupted by a terrible storm and all the young people worry whether their actions have brought God's wrath down on them.
The centrality of religion in everyone's lives is upped a notch when a messianic fundamentalist preacher named Hellgum (Sven-Bertil Taube) comes to town, confidently insisting that the end is near. With some saying he is a man of God, others calling him a mad swindler, Hellgum's presence splits the village.
Ingmar's well-to-do sister Karin (Pernilla August, the director's wife) sides with Hellgum, and, with Ingmar away for months trying to earn money so they can marry, Gertrud is tempted as well. Adding complications is Hellgum's passion for the Holy Land, his belief that all Christians are being called there to help build the New Jerusalem.
Lagerlof's original novel was inspired by Swedes who made a circa 1900 pilgrimage to Palestine, and writer-director August, who dedicates his film to the same people, is careful not to be judgmental. Despite the myriad pulpy turns this plot takes, no one's sincerity is ever questioned; everyone, even those whose choices turn out badly, is allowed the grace of having their faith taken seriously.
Working as usual with cinematographer Jorgen Persson, whose credits go back to "Elvira Madigan," August has filled "Jerusalem" with beautifully mounted re-creations of Swedish village life. Though it doesn't have a trendy bone in its body, "Jerusalem" leaves you feeling you've experienced something and not, as so many nominally more hip films do, like you've just had your pocket picked.
Jerusalem, 1997. PG-13, some violence and a scene of sensuality. Released by First Look Pictures. Director Bille August. Producer Ingrid Dahlberg. Screenplay Bille August, based on the novel by Selma Lagerlof. Cinematographer Jorgen Persson. Editor Janus Billeskov-Janes. Costumes Ann-Margret Freyard. Music Stefan Nilsson. Production design Anna Asp. Running time: 2 hours, 46 minutes. Ulf Friberg as Ingmar. Maria Bonnevie as Gertrud. Pernilla August as Karin. Reine Brynolfsson as Tim. Lena Endre as Barbro. Jan Mybrand as Gabriel. Sven-Bertil Taube as Hellgum.