Illumination; The Magic Lantern
It has been a while since I’ve seen a film as beautiful and poetic as Everlasting Moments (Swedish: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, 2008). I did not know what to expect. The synopsis said that it was about a woman who is trying to be a photographer at the turn of the 20th century. She is facing many obstacles, one of them being her husband who is a drunk and a womanizer. Given the usual ideological subtext present in cinema, which is artistically nuanced as a billboard on a highway, I am perpetually cautious as a viewer. But ideology did not overtake this film.
The film centers on Maria Larsson, a wife and mother, who wins a camera in a lottery. She is the focus of the film but her story is narrated by her daughter Maja. Maria is struggling to take care of her family and is running into many difficulties, mainly because her husband, Sigfrid, is wasting money on drinking. Sigfrid is an aggressive drunk, who occasionally beats Maria and the children, and this magnifies Maria’s suffering.
In order pay for the bills, she decides to take the camera she won in a lottery to the local photography studio. Perhaps she might be able to sell it. She meets Sebastian Pedersen, a photographer who primarily does portraits. Instead of buying the camera, he suggests that Maria experience it first before she sells it. Of course, she finds this frivolous in the midst of her suffering. But she is at the same time intrigued by the “miracle” of development and printing of film.
Maria has a unique vision. She becomes more enthralled by the world of photography and even begins to make some money by taking portraits of people. Parallel to her experience, Sigfrid becomes more violent. He reacts to Maria’s endeavors with contempt and belligerence, and at some point tries to kill her. And yet, even his violence and deeply flawed character is not portrayed in any way two dimensionally. This angry man is lost in the labyrinth of his own destructive behavior and has no idea how to change.
What I was surprised at is that the director (Jan Troell) treated every single character as a human being with his or her own interiority, whether complex or simple. Even minor characters, such as neighbors, are given fullness they deserve.
In one scene, Maria is chatting with another woman from the neighborhood. They are exchanging thoughts on child rearing. Anna laments that her daughter, Elsa, will accomplish nothing in this world and that nobody will want her because Elsa has Down’s syndrome. In a moment of complete honesty and frustration, Anna says that it would have been better if she aborted her early on. Maria is silent. She does not judge Anna’s thoughts. Instead, she says: “I’d like to take a picture of her.” Anna is confused. Why would anyone want to take a picture of a child that will “amount to nothing,” and that is “incapable?” The confusion disappears and in an instant, Anna realizes that Elsa’s humanity has been recognized.
I cannot even describe how much these few minutes in the film have moved me. The unspokenness of human desires and their potential darkness, and our constant striving to move toward the “yes” of life is what makes this film extraordinary.
On a technical side, the director used sepia toned colors in order to convey the authenticity of early 20th century. The occasional graininess of images adds further to the mystery of being and the elusiveness of human condition. This is an ode not only to human strength but also to the cinema, particularly when Maria and the children are watching a Charlie Chaplin film. If poetry could be put to screen, then this film succeeded completely. In many ways, it reminded me of van Gogh’s mad visions of the peasant life, or of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
It is obvious that the film is portraying one woman’s strength to keep her family alive on both physical and metaphysical level. And yet, Maria also transcends her womanhood. Her courage comes from her commitment to both responsibility and beauty. She answers both calls gracefully.
Emina Melonic is originally from Bosnia. After surviving the war in Bosnia and living in a refugee camp in Czech Republic, she immigrated to the United States in 1996, and became an American citizen in 2003. She holds B.A. in English, German, and Art History from Canisius College, M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, M.A. in Philosophy from SUNY Buffalo, and in May, she will have earned M.A. in Theology from Christ the King Seminary (her thesis is on women's mystical experiences in Early Christianity).
Currently, she is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at SUNY Buffalo, and is working on her dissertation, which is on the Song of Songs. Emina lives in East Aurora, NY with her husband, Charlie, and their nutty but lovable cat, Lulu.