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"Get Thee to a Land That I Will Show Thee"

The Emigrants last day at the Sack Chen

By Michael Sragow

THE EMIGRANTS is one of the great films that not only succeeds on its own terms, but could persuade new filmmakers to work according to its standards. It is the freshest film l've seen since Bergman's Passion of Anna--perhaps because writer director photographer-editor Jan Troell believes in examining human responsibility on his social scale as Bergman does on his less expansive but more involved psychological one. Troell and Bergman are not enthralled by suffering, but they know its depths and believe that their characters can take it. It is a rare enough attitude in the twentieth century let alone in film history.

Troell as a filmmaker has made himself responsible in the highest degree for every bit of preparation that sets a movie scene and all the film mechanics that go on afterward. People are his prime resource. He rediscovers the diversity of individual reactions to common social experience--something few directors have achieved since the height of Satyajit Ray's artistry and the works of the better Italian neo-realists. Troell's people move with the same apparent integrity as any in Devt or Open City. All that occasionally mars our complete perception of their actions is Erik Nordgren's music, which bears intrusive lingerings from his Bergman films, and lacks the robust tone which Troell's subject requires: and American studio cutting in the travel sequences.

Troell has also rediscovered some commonsense film knowledge with which the best filmmakers have always worked and which even most critics have forgotten. Stylization in film form is useful only if it is sustained by a complex narrative (Vigo and Eisenstein knew this. Anderson and Kubrick don't. When deliberately artificial means find their way into the telling of a film story which is rooted in veristic detail (as in lesser New Wave films, or those by such American ex-TV directors as John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet), the result is chaos. The film medium, integrating elements of every art, encourages mere thrill-seekers and poetic poseurs. The real challenge is to create an artificial framework sufficiently analogous to the hard reality in which its creator lives to make a philosophic statement artfully: or, as is my bias (and Troell's), to see a historical subject so purely that poetry arises as the culmination of psychological, intellectual and moral developments in the artist's perceived experience.

THE SELF-STYLED avant-gardistes roar back: No! We live in fragmented times, and any work of the Cinemah that intends to be critically truthful must reflect that fragmentation by making criticism of "bourgeois forms" part of the "data" imparted to an audience. (Every well-meaning cloud-nine intellectual should be required to serve in a factory of a chain gang.) Thus, say Sontag and Poirier, the most important films of the past decade have been the political works of Godard and Rocha, even though these guys are in the baby league as far as politicians go. For my money, the best political film ever made is called Salvatore Giuliano, and was made by an Italian Marxist. Francesco Rosi, in 1962. He was one of the first of his countrymen to reveal the linkages of local corruption in any hardnosed way, while debunking Sicilian outlaw mythology. Rosi shows what really happened to the legendary Guihano after World War II, when he was paid by the Mafia to attack growing native Communism, and then was himself assassinated. Rosi was not interested in the emotional dynamics of the situation, only in the political case at hand, making his film subtly innovative. He stuck to the twisting logic of his subject matter, reconstructing actual battles and trials, filming the desolate Sicilian hills and irrationally winding cities with piercing black-and-white clarity, editing and threading the machinations of the different groups of swindlers. There is beauty in the film, images which even the flaming aesthete would want to pin up on his wall next to his Jean-Pierre Leaud poster--but the beauty came from a commitment Rosi made before he ever picked up a movie camera.

By the same criteria. Troell, in this single story from a larger epic we are promised he'll continue, has put together the most effective film in years to be based on the shared life of a social group. The films that usually get the kudos in this category are dreary affairs like Going Down the Road and Fat City, which reduce people coerced into drudgery into pitiable misfits, driven by brute biological urges and inchoate longings for a better way. (The directors are also inappropriately general because of their mistrust of the subject matter. They milk our sympathy with occasional gropes at making their characters self-aware, and hit below the belt with chintzy music). Each of Troell's characters know perfectly well what they're about--even when they're confused, they know their general vicinity. And The Emigrants is so permieatod with their consistent actions, and quick observances of the world they walk through, that we feel we are trekking into the heart of the subject matter while we watch, and can make analytic comments only after checking variant histories. Troell adheres throughout to his imagined 1844-47 viewpoint, even while he skirts the chance of making his characters seem silly to jaundiced twentieth century eyes and ears. He is a tremendously gifted artist, selecting and molding even the most casual event, and his method works.

TROELL CHRONICLES the migration of eight impoverished Swedes, from their emotionally cramped life in the rural province of Smaland, to their gradual disillusionments with that life; from their ten-week voyage to America to their initial settlement in Minnesota. He follows two main groups: the family of farmer Kari Oscar Neilson, and the religious cell of a preacher-sansordinance, Danjell (uncle of Kristina, Neilson's wife). Both groups are directly impelled to emigrate by personal oppression on the part of their overlords (the sheriff, the constable, the deacon, the churchwarden).

Neilson's brother runs away from a farmer to whom he had been hired out, when the oaf beats him with a fence pole. Danjell is threatened for giving holy communion to ex-whores and drunkards. But this brief issue is even more deeply tied to prevalent cultural beliefs and social restrictions. Because the population is growing while the land remains divided in agrarian units under a feudal hierarchy, a fearsome religion is the bulwark of the status quo, and inbred into the people. Only when her youngest daughter dies is Kristina convinced that God wants her family to move elsewhere; only when Danjell claims to have heard God's call to Abraham in his inner voice, saying, "Get the to a land that I will show the," does he join with them.

Swedish provincial life, as studied in the first third of the film, is a test for proud men. The land is not fertile. The weather is capricious. The parson sells liquor, and the sheriff, even if he is a nice fellow, is at the mercy of the richest landowners. The situation produces heartbreaking images: Karl Oscar's father, crippled when a stone he had removed falls back on him, is carried home from the fields on the back of his stolid country wife (in long shot); or the little girl, lit by her mother's torch, wails with a burst stomach, next to a wooden bowl of porridge which she hungrily emptied. At the same time, even in the midst of their sorest travails. Troell's characters have a strength which allows for joyous conceits: the first shot of Kristina, lounging and playing on a swing while Oscar comes to court her, or Robert, excited by a natural sciences schoolbook, floating cap and boots down a stream to check out its fluidity. And of course, the best images of all chart the characters' growth. Flower petals in a cut-glass cup spill over during Kristina's first housewifely drudgery. Kari Oscar, while his entire family (except for his own mother and father) packs and prepares to leave, pauses over a love-plaque he once gave his wife and hands it to her again.

WHEN THE EMIGRANTS first sight the ocean, it ripples in a shimmering vision of release. On board, however, new catastrophes begin to recur, and Troell must hit the same balance as before. There is scurvy and lice and stink. But there is also the beauty of a calm sea and sunstroked sails, and a joyous on-deck dance. In America, new wonders and horrors are evoked: the awesome countryside and native paraphenalta, the strangeness of the language and the relative social freedom. And slowly, the Swedes become a small community. Old prejudices fade before new awareness and necessity. The whore becomes a lady, the preacher humble, the Neilsons leaders.

If the entire film is in some way a celebration of nature as seen by these farmers, the last two minutes is this alone. Kari pushes on in Minnesota while the others stop, seeking the best possible farmland for his family. He cuts his way through miles of forest until he reaches the meadows by the shores of Lake Ki-Chi-Saga. Troell cuts with a compass to four views of the land the Swede has chosen. And after Karl has chopped the bark of a tree to mark his claim, knowing that he has done right by all and enchanted by his prospects, he naps. As the camera hovers inches from his face, he also smiles, with a new jauntimess.

The Emigrants, the story of many good people besides Kari Oscar (who is only particularly strong), opens up our understanding to the extent that we can take full pride in these alien peoples' achievements. It is, above all, a noble film.

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