In the opening moments of Sven Nykvist's "The Ox" (Westside Pavilion), a flawless film of strength and calm, we witness the most rigid of moral codes crumpling in the face of overpowering hunger. On Christmas, 1867, in a profoundly devout rural Swedish community, Helge (Stellan Skarsgard), a young tenant farmer, peers out a windowpane ringed with frost and sees an ox belonging to his employer Svenning (Lennart Hjulstrom). Moments later he takes a sledgehammer to the animal. His shocked wife, Elfrida (Ewa Froling), clutching her baby daughter, asks her husband how he could have done such a thing to Svenning. "What could I do?" he asks. "We have to eat."
In an instant, Helge has set in motion a sequence of events that allows Nykvist, the renowned cinematographer and longtime Ingmar Bergman colleague in his solo directorial debut, to provoke a wide range of complex thoughts and emotions with the utmost simplicity, a quality Nykvist has said has taken him 30 years to achieve.
"The Ox," a 1991 Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, is a spiritual odyssey, a study of the psychology of guilt, an impeccable period piece depicting hardship amid the most beautiful of settings, a love story, an affirmation of the power of faith in the face of cruel injustice, and a celebration of community life sustained by firm religious belief.
Based on an actual incident, "The Ox" is set during a period of terrible drought that drove many Swedes to find new lives in the American Midwest, but it is not a story of why people left, as was Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," but instead an homage to those who, whether by choice or not, stayed and persevered. From start to finish, "The Ox" is suffused with a love of one's country.
As Elfrida remarks, Helge at least could have first tried asking Svenning for food in the face of impending starvation; there is, in fact, every likelihood that Svenning, who has regarded Helge as a son, would not have ultimately let him and his family starve despite the community's stern ethic of proud self-reliance. The point that Nykvist and his co-writer/editor Lasse Summanen make so forcefully--yet so quietly--is that there does come a degree of desperation so overpowering that you will do anything, not so much to save yourself, but rather the lives of your loved ones. From this premise Nykvist implicitly asserts that if religion is to have true validity, it must acknowledge the circumstances surrounding the struggle for survival--and that by the same token society, in its application of the law, has a moral imperative to display similar compassion and humanity.
"The Ox" is steeped in a concern for the redeeming quality of forgiveness--by the church, by the state and by the individual, extended both to others and to him or herself. Indeed, our final, wistful glimpse of the film's villain (Bjorn Granath) has the effect of extending forgiveness even to him.
Almost immediately Helge and Elfrida become consumed with a self-conscious sense of guilt that builds and builds until the discovery of Helge's deed takes on the quality of inevitability, leading to consequences that are as shocking to us as they are to the community's vicar (Max Von Sydow), a spiritual leader in the finest and fullest sense of the term. Played with radiant serenity by Von Sydow, the vicar provides the film with its moral center. That he has a sense of right and wrong, tempered by wisdom and compassion, on a truly heroic scale shouldn't be so surprising, for Nykvist's own father, like Bergman's, was a minister.
Although there's never a sense that Nykvist is at any time attempting to copy Bergman, the film certainly reflects Bergman's influence in its concern for the highest artistic aims possible and for the intimate and the personal. "The Ox" hasn't the symbolism or stylization typical of Bergman, but then such elements are neither necessary nor appropriate to the telling of this particular story. Where Nykvist resembles Bergman most is in his ability to draw performances from actors in challenging, difficult roles that allow them to seem to be living, rather than acting; the cast includes, in supporting parts, such Bergman favorites as Liv Ullmann (as Svenning's understanding wife) and Erland Josephson, on camera only briefly.
"The Ox" (Times-rated Mature for austere, adult themes) is beautifully photographed by Dan Myhrman, working in the burnished, exquisitely modulated manner of Nykvist.
For all those saddened by Bergman's decision to retire from screen directing a decade ago, "The Ox," along with Bille August's Oscar-winning "Pelle the Conqueror" and his more recent "The Best Intentions," written by Bergman and inspired by the lives of his own parents, are splendid consolation presents.
Stellan Skarsgard: Helge Roos
Elfrida Roos: Ewa Froling
Max Von Sydow: The Vicar
Lennart Hjulstrom: Svenning Gustavsson
Bjorn Granath: Flyckt
Liv Ullmann: Maria Gustavsson
A Castle Hill/First Run Features release of a Sweetland Films production. Director Sven Nykvist. Producer Jean Doumanian. Screenplay by Nykvist, Lasse Summanen. Cinematographer Dan Myhrman. Editor Summanen. Costumes Inger Pehrsson. Art director Peter Hoimark. Set decorator Magnus Magnusson. Sound Bo Persson. In Swedish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (austere, adult themes).