Posted by martinteller on May 30, 2012
Based on a pair of novels by Vilhelm Moberg, Jan Troell’s 3-hour epic follows a Swedish family of farmers (and assorted other family members and villagers) as they make the arduous journey to the promised land of America. That’s not entirely an accurate summation, however. The movie is halfway over before they even get on the boat. The first hour and a half details their living conditions, and feels a bit like Pelle the Conqueror. Mid-19th-century Swedish peasants laboring to little avail, under the thumbs of cruel landowners, struggling to harvest enough to survive, undereducated and impoverished. The voyage over is even worse, plagued by lice, maggots, scurvy, seasickness, short tempers, poor food, cramped quarters, and death. It’s not until the last quarter of the movie when we get to America, which is a comparatively sunny portion of the movie… although still beset by language barriers, lack of guidance, and the realization that the country isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But it does end on a promising note, which is a relief because there’s a lot of wallowing in misery on the way there. This is a big ol’ bummer of a movie, although it must be said Troell does an excellent job of bringing that misery to life. The voyage portion of the film is especially harsh, the sense of claustrophobia and abject filth is palpable. Credit also to the cast, especially Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in the leads. Two of my favorites from Bergman’s stable, appearing as a couple for what I believe is the fourth time. But I also really liked Eddie Axberg as the intellectually curious Robert, and Pierre Lindstedt as his somewhat dimmer friend Arvid. Allan Edwall (the father from Fanny & Alexander) also has a strong performance as the preacher who thanks God for all his suffering.
I don’t know if the film really says anything about the immigrant experience, it just painstakingly outlines all the hardships involved, and the hopes and doubts that one would naturally expect. But, except for a slightly sluggish start, it’s engaging with very well-built characters. The attention to detail and excellent performances make this a worthwhile watch, if you don’t mind being bummed out. Rating: Very Good