There was disquieting news last year when the Polaroid Company announced it would stop producing its namesake film. I'm fine with digital photography, but I do mourn good old film. Chemical photography must have seemed miraculous when it was devised almost two centuries ago, and to me it still is miraculous.
It also is miraculous to Maria Larsson. Played with moving, tight-lipped stoicism by Maria Heiskanen, she is the much-challenged woman at the center of Everlasting Moments, the sprawling, richly rewarding Swedish film set in the opening years of the 20th century. Mother of a large brood, unhappy wife of an angry, philandering alcoholic, Maria is dumbstruck one day when a kindly photographer uses a lens to refract the image of a moth onto her hand, which he has flirtatiously grasped. She becomes an accomplished photographer, and again and again people are likewise dumbstruck by her work.
Everlasting Moments is based on the reminiscences of Maja Oman, a distant relation of director Jan Troell. We meet Maja as a little girl of about 7, played in early scenes by Nellie Almgren, later by Callin Öhrvall. Her mother is tense Maria, and her father is boorish Sigfried, who in the course of the film works various backbreaking jobs: dockworker, chalk miner. But he mostly works at being a drunk, and a nasty one. Mikael Persbrandt is frightening and maddening as Sigfried - who has his pleasant moments, as when he plays a squeezebox and sings sea chanteys. But more often he is terrorizing his family and making other mistakes.
One of those lands him in jail, and the family's ensuing poverty is what brings Maria to the studio of that kindly photographer (Jesper Christensen). She means to hock a camera she won in a lottery years earlier. But he encourages her to pursue photography, and soon he is touched by the beauty of her images. She's a natural. That's not all he's touched by, and their fitful romantic gestures, made in the austere studio, are a lovely and sad counterpoint to Maria's chaotic, claustrophobic home life.
Everlasting Moments unfolds over many years, and it is narrated in voiceover by the adult Maja. In these regards it reminds me of John Ford's 1941 film How Green Was My Valley, about Welsh miners. But although the Ford film also has traumatic moments, they are tempered by a pervasive elegiac sweetness. There is little sweetness in Everlasting Moments, which portrays a family's violent crisis against the backdrop of broader violent crises: labor unrest, World War I.
The memoir structure at moments gives Everlasting Moments an unsatisfyingly episodic quality (How Green Was My Valley also has this). Still, strong themes emerge, like Maria's protofeminism. Mysteries emerge, too. The main one: Why does Maria stay with this drunken abuser? "Maybe it was love," Maja muses. She doesn't sound happy when she says it.