Bille August’s new film “Jerusalem” takes so much time to tell its story that it’s hard to imagine the director has left anything out.
Yet that’s how the movie feels. Based on a novel by Selma Lagerlof, “Jerusalem” has the pinched feel of an overstuffed picnic basket.
The picnic metaphor is appropriate for a couple of reasons. August’s film follows in the Ingmar Bergman tradition of studying characters limited by their fears and inhibitions (the pinched part), yet it also offers a full share of treats such as glorious cinematography, intriguing characterization and landscapes as diverse as Scandinavian snowfields and Middle Eastern deserts.
And overstuffed? How’s this for a variety of plot devices: accidental death, impossible promises, stolen inheritance, religious chicanery, attempted murder, brainwashing, frustrated love, betrayal, visionary images and near madness, emigration, hardship, spurned love, disappointment, rejection and more attempted murder?
Set at the turn of the century, and based on a true incident involving a group of fundamentalist Swedes who emigrated to Palestine, “Jerusalem” is a study in irony. It seems to say that life doesn’t always offer a clear path to happiness. Sometimes you have to choose between competing desires, and sometimes you are forced to settle for less.
The trick is to make the best of what you get.
Fate seems to conspire against Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) from the beginning. When his father is gravely injured during a heroic rescue, young Ingmar is the focus of his father’s dying request: Since the village is weak and needs a leader, he must promise to be that leader when it becomes necessary.
He agrees, of course (young boys will promise anything). But years will pass before he is forced to do anything about it. Before then, he is cheated out of his birthright by his drunken brother-in-law, is sent to live with neighbors, falls in love with Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie), the woman who is his virtual sister, and he is forced to work at a sawmill in the woods, alone, to earn money to claim what’s rightfully his.
The village crisis is precipitated by the arrival of a mysterious stranger, an American preacher named (irony alert) Hellgum (Sven-Bertil Taube) who carries with him all the charisma of a Jim Jones. A cultist determined to both root out what he sees as the influence of Satan and found a “new” Jerusalem, Hellgum attracts a group of followers that includes Ingmar’s sister Karin (Pernilla August) and Gertrud.
Angry and feeling betrayed, Ingmar finds himself in an impossible situation: If he is to live up to his father’s wishes and be the strong force the village needs, he must marry a complete stranger and take over the family farm (which comes as dowry); if he is to follow his heart and marry the woman he loves, he must ignore his father’s wishes and watch the village be taken over by a forestry company.
Talk about tough decisions.
And this is only the first half of the film. The second half involves the consequences of Ingmar’s choice and how some characters resolve themselves to that reality while others do their best to change it. And then there are those, Ingmar chiefly, who try to do both.
Director August, best known for directing such life harsh studies as “Pelle the Conqueror” and “The Best Intentions” (based on a Bergman script), tried a change of pace last time out. His adaptation of the psychological thriller “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” was uncharacteristically trendy.
“Jerusalem” is a return to classic Swedish cinema. Slow and stately, determined and dark, it owes much to Bergman and perhaps even more to Jan Troell (“The Emigrants,” “The New Land”).
There are a few lapses. Some of the plot points are told in shorthand (Why are these villagers such weaklings? And what is Hellgum’s story?). Characters are meek to the point of viewer irritability. And we could have done with at least one less stabbing.
But August makes good use of cinematographer Jorgen Persson, who has worked on everything from “Elvira Madigan” to “My Life as a Dog.” And he gets decent, if starkly solemn, performances from the entire cast (although I have to ask: Just what is Olympia Dukakis doing in this movie?).
Overall, “Jerusalem” is not the masterpiece that the material would seem to suggest it could be. There are just too many loose ends to the story, too many telescoped sequences that look better than they play.
But it comes close. And in this era of MTV quick cuts, near-art is nothing to dismiss. , DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Jerusalem” Locations: Lincoln Heights Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Bille August (from the novel by Selma Lagerlof), starring Maria Bonnevie, Ulf Friberg, Lena Endre, Pernilla August, Sven-Bertil Taube, Reine Brynolfsson, Olympia Dukakis, Max Von Sydow Running time: 2:46 Rating: PG-13