A photographer finds her voice
'Everlasting Moments" presents a paradox: It's a small, graceful epic. Set in southern Sweden during the first decades of the 20th century, the movie picks one face out of the tenement crowd: Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), impoverished, overworked, saddled with a brutish husband named Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt) and a growing gaggle of children. Then it hands her a still camera and watches as, to Maria's own great shock, her creative fires are lit.
The camera - a small accordion model called a Contessa - is won by Maria in a lottery and packed away at the back of a closet. Years later, she pulls it out only to try to sell it to a local photographer, since Sigge is on strike at the shipyard and spending what little money they have on drink and other women. The photographer, a cultured older man named Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), instead shows her how to work the camera and sends her home to snap a few pictures.
She's good at it. In fact, she's a natural. When a neighbor woman asks her to photograph her dead daughter, the shot Maria keeps for herself is a spooky image of the corpse laid on a table as local children jostle to peer in at a nearby window. The Contessa comes to represent freedom to this shy, self-effacing woman - the possibility of independent life, of a soul-match with the gentle photographer - and this fills her with both joy and fear. It's 1907, after all, and Maria is a 19th-century woman. Certain things aren't done.
"Everlasting Moments" is beautifully attuned to tectonic shifts in the culture even as it attends to this one small life. We see Maria's marriage and art through the eyes of her oldest daughter, Maja (played by Nellie Almgren as a girl and Callin Öhrvall as a teenager; both have the wide, clear face of a Vermeer subject). Sigge, is a chauvinistic blowhard whose bullying grows more intense as he sees his wife step gingerly into the modern world. Both he and Maja sense what Maria won't admit to herself and what the photographer already knows: Art and independence can never be packed away again.
"Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing," Pedersen tells his pupil, and that's the true subject of "Everlasting Moments": seeing, and preserving what is seen. It's a matter clearly close to the heart of director Jan Troell, who at 77 is the reigning grand old man of Swedish cinema. (US moviegoers know him best for his Oscar-nominated "The Emigrants" and "The New Land" in the early 1970s; the new film, based loosely on a true story, was Sweden's submission for this year's Academy Award.)
"Everlasting Moments" is quiet, observant, and intensely moving whenever Heiskanen is on screen, and it has a valedictory sweep that feels like a summing up. Troell lovingly re-creates a time when socialism and Charlie Chaplin movies represented the ways forward, and he anchors his social panorama in the meek, stubborn stare of an unnoticed woman possessed with looking at everything.