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MOVIE REVIEW : Family Tie Endures Harsh Times in ‘Pelle’

Times Staff Writer

“Pelle the Conqueror” (opening Friday at the Music Hall) is a great agrarian epic in which landowners and farm workers live side by side in a state of stark and seemingly immutable inequity. It is also the story of a remarkably tender father-and-son relationship, played superbly by Max von Sydow and young newcomer Pelle Hvenegaard.

Denmark’s official Oscar entry, the film is a towering achievement, grueling in its portrayal of a harsh existence yet ultimately an exhilarating experience unlikely to be forgotten.

Like Ermanno Olmi’s “Tree of Wooden Clogs,” “Pelle the Conqueror,” a Danish-Swedish co-production, contrasts the bleak life of the peasantry with the beauty of the eternal cycle of the changing seasons.

Yet this masterful film, in its celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit, shares with Jan Troell’s “The Emigrants"--in which Von Sydow starred--and Elia Kazan’s “America, America” the dream of escaping to the United States, the land of opportunity. “Pelle the Conqueror,” in short, embodies the dreams of most of our ancestors.

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Ironically, the earthly paradise that the weathered widower Lasse (Von Sydow) promises his small son Pelle (Hvenegaard) is not across the ocean but in Denmark, to which impoverished but hopeful turn-of-the-century Swedes sailed in search of jobs.

In the case of Lasse, and undoubtedly others as well, their hopes were dashed as soon as they set foot on Danish soil.

“Shouldn’t take the first offer that comes along,” explains Lasse, shoring up his battered pride, as he is rejected for work. While Lasse has gone to bolster himself with brandy at the nearest saloon, Pelle, now utterly alone on the dock, is approached by a paunchy, sour old man (Erik Paaske), the manager of the distant and remote Stone Farm. A drunken and humiliated Lasse gratefully signs on for 100 crowns a year as a stable hand.

“Everything turns out bad here,” remarks Stone Farm’s tormented mistress, Mrs. Kongstrup (Astrid Strobye), and it certainly seems to be true. Lasse and the other workers are indentured servants, virtual slaves for the term of their contracts and are at the mercy of the stingy, hard-driving manager and his pale, cold-eyed, teen-age assistant (Morten Jorgensen) whose job it is to teach them their tasks. (He is also a budding sadist whose discriminatory attitudes toward Swedes proves to be all-too-typical.)

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If it is shocking to realize that farm life in supposedly enlightened Scandinavia was so medieval within living memory, consider that Mario Camus’ scathing “Holy Innocents” depicts an equally oppressed peasantry in Franco’s Spain of the 1960s.

If Lasse and Pelle huddle in their primitive quarters in the stable, they can take cold comfort that their masters are assuredly miserable in their grand manor house. The missus has married beneath herself, to an indefatigable womanizer (Axel Strobye), who has reputedly populated the countryside with his offspring while his childless wife consoles herself with cognac (when she can get her hands on it) and with such nightly keening that the peasants say she has made a pact with the devil and turns into a werewolf every evening.

In a sense “Pelle the Conqueror,” which Swedish writer-director Bille August adapted from the first part of Danish novelist Martin Andersen Nexo’s four-volume 1906-1910 autobiographical saga, is a chronicle of hopes cruelly dashed--not only those of Lasse and Pelle but of those around them.

In all this relentless disappointment we notice the bright and observant Pelle gradually strengthen his resolve in his growing realization that his father, loving and kind parent that he is, is too old and too worn-down by a hard life to defy the systematic brutalization of the farm. Yet both his father and Erik (Bjorn Granath), the most defiant of the workers and the one who instills in Pelle the dream of going to America, tell him that he is a conqueror because he is young and can strive to improve his lot.

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Surely, there were less severe establishments in Denmark than Stone Farm--just as most certainly there were worse. Despite all the mounting hardships and setbacks which “Pelle the Conqueror” depicts so remorselessly, the film, which thankfully has the respite of humor, doesn’t seem to be exaggerating its sufferings, but rather reminding us just how unjust life can be.

(At every turn we’re made to realize that this film is about as far from Hollywood movies as it is possible to be as it dashes expectations and becomes all the more real for doing so.)

In Pelle’s example we can perceive the importance of making the most of transitory happiness--a picnic on the grass, a carnival, a kind gesture on the part of another--and also of perseverance. The film extends the utmost compassion to those whom life eventually defeats, but it never preaches despair.

Indeed, August, who made last year’s much-praised “Twist and Shout,” is not a preacher at all; the injustices he reveals are so pervasive and extreme that they need no commentary beyond their dramatization.

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“Pelle the Conqueror,” winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, is full of fine portrayals--Granath’s and Villaume’s being among the finest, and it is brought gloriously alive in the painterly images of cinematographer Jorgen Persson (“Elvira Madigan”).

However, it is a triumph for young, dark-eyed Hvenegaard, natural and unself-conscious at all times, and especially for Max von Sydow. With this film he crowns his career and comes full circle, back to the kind of film that won him international renown as a member of the Ingmar Bergman stock company.

Sunburned, stooped and shuffling, Von Sydow is every decent, illiterate, hard-working laborer who ever lived, dreaming of an impending old age that might bring the small comfort of “coffee in bed on Sunday morning” and of a better life for his son. Von Sydow’s Lasse, created from so deeply within, is as splendid a portrayal as we’re likely to see this or any other year.


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