Friday, July 2, 2010

A Forgotten Oscar Nominee: "The Emigrants" 1972

Walter of The Silver Screening Room correctly identified the obscure, Oscar-nominated Swedish film that competed against "The Godfather" for Best Picture in 1972. That movie is "The Emigrants", the epic first half of Jan Troell's rustic masterpiece that finished with "The New Land."  Both films were originally conceived as one piece, but were split and released in the U.S. by Warner brothers as two separate films.  (In that odd way, "The Emigrants" has something in common with "The Lord of the Rings".)

Maybe because "The Emigrants" is so hard to find (it has not been released on DVD), and is almost never shown in revivals, it is perhaps the least-known and little-seen Best Picture nominee of the last few decades.  I still have my VHS version, which is a treasure to me despite the fading color quality and the English dubbing.

It is an absorbing, startling, and often very beautiful look at the hardships suffered by a group of Smaland villagers who, battered by the seasons and subjected to religious persecution, band together to make a trip to America and a new life

The movie is divided into three acts. The first is a realistic look at the difficult conditions faced by farmers, the simplicity of meeting basic needs, and the interaction of the villagers. (A yellow apple, a ride on a swing, a lovers' embrace, take on the significance of life itself.)  Part two is a shockingly harsh middle passage as the villagers embark on the boat voyage to America. We feel the claustrophobia and fear as many of them suffer, in unusually vivid detail (for a major release in 1972), seasickness, lice, hunger, scurvy, hemorrhage, and death.  The third act is the eventual landing, the adjustment to new language and currency, the first inkling of class inequality (black slaves are briefly glimpsed on a neighboring ship), and the uncertain trek to a permanent home, ending in a claim, staked near a breathtaking lake on rich land in Minnesota. 

The characters are rendered in leisurely scenes, surrounded by natural sounds both idyllic and frightening....the hum of locusts in summer trees can give way to the agonized cries of an injured farmer.  Liv Ullmann shines as Kristina, who loves the simple if difficult life in the only village she has ever known.  Max Von Sydow, exuding a youthful physicality and boiling frustration, is Karl Oskar, a stoic and caring family man, who must make the difficult decision to take his family and leave their village for the overly-idealized shores of North America.

Buried like a gem inside this broad epic of a natural life, rendered in astonishing period detail that Troell makes seem easy, is the love story of Kristina and Karl OskarUllmann was at the peak of her popularity and beauty, and Von Sydow, incredibly, would appear as an aging priest in "The Exorcist" just a couple years later. 

The chronicle of their marriage and life together is the heart of this movie. Troell allows us time to know and love these people, to be there at the birth and tragic death of children, to hear their intimate late-night discussions, and to share in their relationships with other endearing, flesh-and-blood characters: Karl Oskar's brother Robert and his oafish, loyal friend Arvid; a local prostitute who begins as a threat to their household but becomes a dear friend later; and various priests, farmers, mothers, fathers, lovers,  and village officials.

This combination of clear-eyed observation, record of nature, and history of American settlement, makes "The Emigrants" a valuable addition to film history.  It's too bad it has not reached a contemporary audience.

Having said that, I don't know if this film could have been made, let alone released, today. Its inclusion in the Oscar race would be surprising, although at that time it was considered a major release, its foreign-language origin aside.  It was nominated as Best Foreign language Film in 1971 (rules have since changed) and its second half, "The New Land", was a Foreign Language Film nominee in the same year that "The Emigrants" competed for Best Picture, Actress, Director and Screenplay.  Neither film picked up any Oscars, overlooked as it was amid the juggernauts of "Cabaret" and "The Godfather".

My then-favorite critic, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, championed "The Emigrants choosing this and "The New Land" as the Best Film of 1972. Most critics were enraptured...even Pauline Kael was won over by the style and feel of this film. Click here to read her review..

It was a huge critical success in fact,  and won several major critics' prizes, including  Golden Globe and New York Film Critics Awards to Liv Ullmann for Best Actress. 

Another Swedish film would be among the Best Picture nominees the following year: While Von Sydow chilled crowds as Father Merrin in the Best Picture nominee "The Exorcist", more reflective voters cited Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" as their choice in this category..."Cries and Whispers" will be discussed soon in an upcoming Forgotten Oscar Nominee post....

1 comment:

  1. Jan Troell has an incredible skill for documenting lives and coaxing genuine naturalistic performances it's a rela shame he's not lauded as much today as he deserves.

    Did you see Everlasting Moments? Certainly one of the best films from last year, with a stunning central performance from Maria Heiskanen.