By Afra Nariman
Everlasting Moments (2008)
Directed by: Jan Troell
Stars: Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen, Callin Öhrvall
In Sweden in the early 1900’s, Maria Lawson, an immigrant from Finland, comes across an old camera that she had won in a lottery years earlier, and uses it to chronicle her life and the lives of the people around her. Her passion for photography grows, as she uses her skill to support her children, while dealing with her alcoholic and abusive husband, Sigfrid. The film is narrated by Maria’s daughter, Maja, who in many ways, resembles Maria’s inner strength and dignity, in the face of the evil that she faces daily.
Art, about the love of an art form, holds a special place in my heart. These kinds of films speak to me on a powerful level, and it is always abundantly clear that the filmmakers making them, personalize these stories, and tell them in a very special way. Everlasting Moments is a romance about the art of photography. By romance, I don’t mean the film is about a “romance” between two people — although, in a way, it is also that — but what I mean, is that it’s a romance between a woman and her passion for photography; between her and her camera. Like many of the best typical romances, this film is about an “impossible love.” In a life filled with instability, hardship and domestic abuse; Maria finds salvation, purpose and passion in photography — in the art of capturing singular moments in reality that would otherwise be forgotten with time.
Due to the time period, the circumstances and the presence of an erratic and abusive father, there is a genuinely heavy aura surrounding the film. It immediately places you in a place and time, and sets a mood and style right away. The use of orchestral music also contributes to the film’s ability to set the mood that absorbs us into the setting and circumstances of the story in various moments.
Everlasting Moments tells the story of Maria, as narrated by her daughter Maja, and their family’s experiences during the early 1900s as they deal with financial insecurity, political unrest, Maria’s abusive alcoholic husband Sigfrid, and eventually the heightened level of each of these struggles while the family encounters the strife of war times. From start to finish, the film is brutally vivid, revealing and realistic in its approach and execution. Sigfrid’s unpredictability and alcoholic tendencies haunts the family, whether through physical abuse or emotional trauma. At many points throughout the film, we see him enter a room when everyone are happy and lively; and he sucks the life and joy straight out of that room. In fact, every member of the family seems to thrive while he is gone. While having to deal with his abuse, the family must also navigate through a plethora of other various struggles — mainly the financial uncertainty that I mentioned. The film portrays the family’s life over the course of many years, so their financial situations change often based on Sigfrid’s current occupation at a given time, along with the level of abuse that he inflicts upon them. One of the most powerful themes of the film is the strength and dignity that Maria, and her daughter Maja, show in the face of abuse.
Throughout her abusive, uncertain and unstable life; Maria finds salvation in her passion and practice of photography, and the photographer who she meets along the way. In the beginning of the film, Maja tells us in her narration, the story of how her mother, Maria, had come across the camera that is at the center of this story, and consequently how her mother came to marry her father. While dating Sigfrid, Maria had won a lottery and the prize was a camera, and Sigfrid had bought the ticket, so they decided to get married “just” so they could share the camera. The film depicts their life years later, when they have four children, and eventually have seven. Early in the film, Maria comes across the old camera when looking through her things. Her first thought is to sell it for rent/food money, but the man at the photography shop, who later becomes one of her closest friends, convinces her to keep the camera and give photography a shot — and that proves to change the course of Maria’s life and at many points, the life of her family. She immediately finds herself in awe of the wonder of photography. She says:
Today, we often take a lot of things for granted. One of those things is photography. Through Maria’s fresh passion for the art, this film highlights the mystical wonder of simply taking pictures, something that previous generations likely didn’t take for granted the way that we do. She falls in love with creating Everlasting Moments in time. This new endeavor of hers quickly becomes her salvation in an otherwise tiring, stressful and at times, unbearable existence.
At first, she keeps the new hobby a secret from everyone, especially her abusive husband, but eventually she becomes known in the neighborhood for her work. At many times, she uses her new skill to help support the family financially when they need the money. Her artistic skill in photography is noticed by practically everyone; most of all the town photographer, who says to her after observing one of the pictures she had taken for someone in town;
She had very quickly developed the skill that photographers and other artists have: they are able to see the uncloaked versions of reality that most people cannot — and capture them for the rest of us to see. Although many people notice and praise Maria for her skill, her husband Sigfrid does not. He threatens her about it numerous times, as he takes out his anger towards the financial and political instability that he faces everyday, by drinking and then coming home and abusing his family in various ways. Photography soon becomes Maria’s source of independence from the misery that her husband brings her. This story is as much about a woman’s path towards independence and individuality, as it is about the wonder of photography and the “romance” that she finds herself share with the art form.
The father’s various forms of physical and emotional abuse creates a dark cloud that each member of the family must live under for much of the film. Perhaps because of his own hardships of needing to work, dealing with political instability and struggling to even get the jobs that he doesn’t actually want to do; he is reluctant to appreciate and support both Maria and their kids in pursuing their own passions and dreams. As I said, he threatens Maria on numerous occasions regarding her camera and her career as a photographer. He also voices his disdain for his children pursuing their dreams. Their son is gifted and wants to go to University to study, while Maja wants to learn German and become a teacher. Sigfrid views these goals as unrealistic and pointless for much of the film. It is when he is gone for the various reasons that he is, that the family is able to throw themselves into their passions and dreams. In the end, things seem to come together. It seems to be on track at the very end, for the film to end on a happy note. Sigfrid starts his own business, they move into a new home where he has designated a room for Maria to pursue her photography further, the kids are freely chasing their goals, the family seems happy — but the film nevertheless ends in heartbreaking fashion, which the details I will not divulge. The way that this particular film ends though, makes the story stick with you even more so, as you are moved to reflect about what you just watched and what it truly means.
In many ways, art is the act of having a romance with the wonders that life has to offer: love, nature, space, time, etc. This film tells the authentically intimate story of one woman’s romance with those wonders, through her developing passion for photography and the awe-inspiring power that it can have. She continually expresses, in regards to the creation of pictures;
“It’s a miracle.”
The film also highlights that photography, the act of capturing moments that are everlasting, is not only significant in capturing the good moments, but also the sad ones; as evidenced by her photograph of a little girl in the neighborhood who passes away. After many of the memorable photographs that she takes, the film shows us those pictures. This detail, of bringing us into the story, to witness the art first-hand, shows us how powerful photography, and art in general, can be. The film emphasizes in every moment, the wonder of images and pictures, both still and moving — as apparent in the scene in which the family attends the cinema.
Everlasting Moments does so much more than it may seem. It’s ability to place us so deeply into a time and place, and right from the beginning, create a mood and style that the entire film adheres to, allows the film to feel genuine, real, and squeeze out every ounce of emotionally powerful potential that it may have, out of the story. It tells a story about a family, weighed down by the financial and political instability of their circumstances and time period, and how their struggles are only heightened by the presence of an abusive, irresponsible, womanizing and alcoholic father/husband. In the same breath, it manages to highlight the reality of love; that it isn’t logical. This is built up throughout the entire story’s progression, but is emphasized and most evident through one of Maja’s last narrating remarks:
“When Mother looked at her pictures she’d say: ‘Imagine, we’ll always be here. These moments will be everlasting.’
Why Mother stayed with Father I’ve always found a mystery. Perhaps it was love…”
In this statement, we get a point of view on love, and how sometimes it outweighs logic, even when everything practically pushes you to leave, when the person you “love” continually hurts you, even comes close to killing you in this case; you can’t help love. Now, this sentiment may be controversial, or wrong — but it happens. Additionally, through the first part of that monologue, we get a last notion of the romance between Maria and her love for photography; that wonder that I have so adamantly spoken about in this review — the wonder of being able to capture any moment, from your point of view, and having that exact viewpoint of that moment last much longer than you yourself will. It’s a hauntingly beautiful thought that we so often overlook, as we are now able to take pictures so effortlessly, even meaninglessly, with our phones that fit in our pockets like a wallet. Even today, it is important not to take these things for granted. This film reminds us to do that — so next time you take out your phone, or your camera to take a picture, really stop and think about how amazing what you’re doing truly is. Everlasting Moments is a vibrant cinematic experience that is full of misery, yet also liveliness. It’s a story about family, independence, love, strength, perseverance, photography, and of course, wonder.