Jerusalem Film Festival 2009:Oh My God, Everlasting Moments, The Dust of Time

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Everlasting Moments

Oh My God is a mildly interesting new documentary. As its title might indicate, it is about god. That title is also a hint as to how serious the film is. It is cute, well meaning, and there has been a lot of effort put into it. Director Peter Roger traveled all over the world in search of people’s thoughts about god. There are a whole lot of interesting people interviewed. But it appears like the film is harmed by the wealth of material Roger has collected. There are so many people interviewed, that only very few of them are given a sustained amount of time to express something. Most of them are contained to a single sound-bite. The documentary is pretty formless- probably necessarily so, because of the complete lack of narrative inherent in asking a whole lot of people (including celebrities like Ringo Starr, Bob Geldof, Seal, David Copperfield and Hugh Jackman) the same question. But it might have more cumulative power if we stayed with certain people longer- so much of this film was a montage of images and sound-bites to a techno-beat. It didn’t build, it just progressed.

Roger, who was brought up in the Church of England, seems genuinely attracted to this question of how people perceive god, what their relationship is to god, and he does get some interesting opinions across. But in the end, the film comes to the conclusion that maybe man created god, but that believing in god is a good thing, as long as “God is love”. Its fine, but it struck me as being tame and not particularly enlightening, as well as, I’m sorry to say, not being worth the immense effort that making it must have required.

Everlasting Moments is the newest film from Swedish master Jan Troell (probably best known for his films The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). Based on a story by his wife, Agneta Ulfsäter, Troell tells the episodic tale of Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), a working-class mother in World-War I era Sweden. Maria is married to Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt), a man who is capable of great sweetness and jovialness, but who is easily angered and is constantly having trouble remaining sober. At the beginning of the story they have four children, one of whom, Maja, narrates the film. The narration is past tense, giving the film the feel of a memory. That feeling is enhanced by the yellowish tones of the film, which often looks like an old photograph come to life. Photography is a major element in the film. Maria and Sigfrid get married after winning a raffle for a camera, back when photography was mysterious enough to carry a whiff of the magical. And after becoming disillusioned with Sigfrid’s broken promises, Maria finds a new life in her passion for photography, which she is encouraged to cultivate by the proprietor of the local photography store. His name is Sebastian Pederson, and he’s played by Danish actor Jesper Christensen (he played Mr. White in the recent James Bond films). Pederson is quite taken with Maria and her photographs, and has a beautiful scene in which he shows her how a camera works, by using its lens to capture the image of a butterfly. “Not everyone is endowed with sight”, he tells her, and soon she finds herself photographing everything from portraits for Christmas cards to publicity shots for shops to grand parades and, with one particularly haunting picture, capture the essence of little girl who died on the ice.

Maria’s relationship with Sigfrid goes through a few brief ups and a multitude of downs. He beats her, repeatedly threatens to get rid of the camera, and twice he threatens to kill her. The second time he ends up in jail, but Maria still stands by him, publicly showing her acceptance of him by walking with him hand in hand from the jail back home. Although one hopes that she could just get rid of him and start her own photography shop, the touching fragility of this film is in how Maria never truly gives up on Sigfrid. No matter how bad he can be, the good times –such as a merry dance Sigfrid and Maria share at a picnic- are moments of such pure bliss, they make the rest of it bearable. That is what I took to be the meaning of the title. By connecting the capturing of a moment in time via a photograph with savoring the memory of a happy afternoon, Troell and his actors have created a poignant film that has the breadth of a novel, but a sensory pleasure that can only be transmitted on film. It’s a rich and rewarding memory.

Although I saw it two days ago, I’ve had no luck making sense of Theo Angelopoulos’ new film The Dust of Time. Angelopoulos, probably Greek’s most celebrated director, is the premiere guest of the festival, and was in attendance at the showing of this film. In a brief Q&A after the film, he put forth his theory that although the film is intensely personal, he believes that if it is emotionally true to him, than it should make emotional sense to the audience. The audience I saw it with seemed somewhat split…I found myself on the detractors side. I could not make any sense, emotional or otherwise, of this film. It has some beautiful moments, but I found those to be few and far between, and so much of the rest of it inexplicable. Aside from veterans Bruno Ganz and Michel Piccoli (who I was surprised to learn was still working), who seem to know what they’re doing, the cast here seemed rather lost to me, particularly Irène Jacob as the female lead, who plays the same character over nearly 50 years, and is rarely convincing or compelling. Willem Defoe also struck me as somewhat lost, playing a director known only as A. The film has at least two different timelines, which blend into each other to a bewildering effect. There are many things that struck me as weird and ill-conceived about the film…but as I could not even begin to understand as a whole, listing the things I did not care for or looked clumsy to me would be quite an absurd endeavor.

Screenings:

Oh My God, Peter Roger, 16.7 at 21:00
93 minutes, English, no subtitles

Everlasting Moments, Jan Troell, 18.7 at 17:15
125 minutes, Swedish with English subtitles

The Dust of Time, Theo Angelopoulos, 15.7 at 20:30
128 minutes, English, Greek, Russian and German with English subtitles

SHLOMO PORATH