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Ever since the semi-mystical Swedish writer Selma Lagerlsf won the 1909 Nobel Prize for Literature, a rumor's been going around that the fix was in. The Swedish Academy, detractors say, had favored a native daughter who made her only real contribution to world culture in 1924--when she inadvertently launched Greta Garbo's movie career via the filming of her novel The Story of Gosta Berling.
In any event, Lagerlsf (1858-1940) has now moved on to talkies. Swedish director Bille August's adaptation of her two-volume Jerusalem, an impassioned nineteenth-century meditation on religious faith, primal fear and the power of love, is what Hollywood would call a "sweeping epic." It's almost three hours long and unfolds in four languages. The locations range from an icily beautiful village in northern Sweden to the teeming bazaars of the Middle East. Intertwined stories follow the fateful intrigues of a beautiful preacher's daughter named Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie); the strapping, self-reliant farmer who loves and betrays her, Ingmar (Ulf Friberg); a frightened rich girl, Barbro (Lena Endre); and a God-fearing suitor called Gabriel (Jan Mybrand). And at the heart of the conflict, there's a company of simple Swedish villagers who are literally led away to the Holy Land by a seductive messiah who threatens them with the wrath of God. He in turn is under the spell of a stern guru from, of all places, Chicago. Everybody calls her "Mother."
Lagerlsf's Jerusalem books, published in 1901 and 1902, have their origins in fact. In 1881, a wealthy Chicago couple, Horatio and Anna Spafford, grieving the loss of their four daughters in a shipwreck, founded a Christian sect in Jerusalem called The American Colony. Very strict outfit. By 1896, with a new century looming, a Swedish-American revivalist had recruited 38 poor Swedish farmers and 17 children. They sold their land and belongings, got on a boat for Jaffa and set sail for redemption. The American Colony eventually grew to 150 members--all of them in thrall to Mrs. Spafford's notions on celibacy (enforced), discipline (constant) and medical care (none). Writer Lagerlsf took the whole thing as a "wildly romantic enterprise," which is reflected in her prose.
The current resonance is obvious. From the apocalyptic pronouncements of Pat Robertson and company to last month's space-cadet suicides in California, millennial hysteria is once more upon us. It's amazing how accurately Lagerlsf dramatized the whole business almost a century ago--despite herself. In the furnace of her imagination, formed before the vast disillusionment of World War I, Good usually defeated Evil in no uncertain terms, and the Jerusalem stories sport a rather sunny view of Christian fervor. Today that might seem naive or trite to many, so director August (Pelle the Conqueror) has manufactured his own neutral stand toward it. He neither endorses nor criticizes the Swedish pilgrims who tramp off to Jerusalem on the trail of the manipulative Mr. Hellgum (Sven-Bertil Taube), and he has very little to say about the state of mind of young Gertrud, who, once Ingmar abandons her to save his family's farm, is haunted by nightmares of revenge and visions of Christ, who has clearly become her surrogate "lover."
Despite August's waffling, however, some modernist ironies have inevitably seeped into his film, deepened by the events of our own century. For instance, it's impossible to watch a bereaved father with his dead daughter's coffin strapped to his back without realizing that her death has been unnecessary, the very fruit of her parents' blind belief. It's difficult to hear "Mother" from Chicago (a masterstroke of casting: Olympia Dukakis) hold forth to her zonked followers on the righteousness of God's path and not think of Jonestown, Rancho Santa Fe or, for that matter, the Nuremberg rallies.
And when Gertrud, a heartbreaking picture of tumbling blond tresses and fragile will, gives herself over even to an improvised fiction about the holy powers in a glass of water, we can't help weighing the cold light of reality against the glories of faith. None of these issues are quite so pointed in the breathless old romanticism of Selma Lagerlsf as they are in the latter-day filmmaking of Bille August. In fact, this rambling, fascinating, maddening film is not all that different from the other Bille August work currently on view. When it's not playing James Bond action games, Smilla's Sense of Snow is also about the loss and rediscovery of self. And it also has plenty of ice and snow to go around.
In Jerusalem, the performances are uniformly superb, including a cameo as a shunned vicar by the great Max von Sydow. It's the film's odd view of the world--caught between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first, it seems--that eventually diminishes its power as an examination of the urges of love and the varieties of religious experience.
Meanwhile, does life imitate art? Maybe so. In 1910, Selma Lagerlsf used part of the $100,000 award that came with her Nobel Prize to--yes--buy back her own family's lost farm in northern Sweden. Presumably, she then stayed put.
Screenplay by Bille August, from stories by Selma Lagerlsf. Directed by Bille August. With Ulf Friberg, Maria Bonnevie, Pernilla August, Sven-Bertil Taube and Lena Endre.
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