Noted actress Liv Ullmann stepped behind the camera for this film, an exceptional if demanding, decades-spanning portrait of a Danish woman struggling to live her own life instead of fulfilling the expectations of others.
The movie begins in 1886, in Copenhagen, when at age 29 the sensual and imaginative Sofie (Karen-Lise Mynster) realizes that she is almost beyond marriageable age. She is devoted to her parents, Semmy (Erland Josephson), a middle-class Jewish businessman, and Frederikke (Ghita Norby); Semmy's
wealthy brother Frederik (Henning Moritzen); and her near-dotty spinster aunts (Lotte Herman, Elin Reimer, Lone Herman). For the first time in her carefree life, Sofie falls in love with the free-spirited painter Hojby (Jesper Christensen), but Semmy gently forces her to leave him (as he's a
Gentile) and marry her Swedish cousin Jonas (Torben Zeller), a well-meaning but boring storekeeper.
Far from home and living frugally, Sofie attempts to cope with the dull, loveless marriage and finds contentment in the birth and rearing of their son Aron. But the deeply repressed Jonas grows more and more disturbed, his condition aggravated by the death of his beloved mother (Kirsten Rolffes)
and Sofie's decision to give in to a helplessly passionate attraction for his married brother Gottlieb (Stig Hoffmeyer). Sofie is finally forced to commit the almost totally withdrawn Jonas to a mental institution and successfully takes over running his shop. Years later, when her ageing parents
need her, Sofie returns home to Copenhagen with Aron to run their business and help out at home. More years pass; family deaths occur, including Frederikke's; the family business nearly folds in post-WWI turmoil. Sofie sees Hojby again and outbids him, at an auction of her uncle Frederik's assets,
for a portrait of her parents he painted all those many happier years ago. The film concludes with Semmy's death and the now eighteen-year-old Aron (Kasper Barfoed) questioning his mother's life-long devotion to family, Jewish, and social conventions and breaking away to start life on his own.
It is not surprising that Liv Ullmann's directorial debut, in its relaxed pacing and attention to physical and emotional detail, recalls the work of the great Ingmar Bergman, for whom Ullmann starred in nine of her most important and frankly best films, from 1966's PERSONA to 1978's AUTUMN
SONATA. Based on a classic 1932 Danish novel, Mendel Philipsen and Son, by Henri Nathansen, SOFIE was a long-term pet project for Ullmann, who worked for several years on the screenplay, ultimately with noted novelist, poet, and playwright Peter Poulsen. SOFIE is long at over 2 1/2 hours, of which
the first two are the best, a concise if somewhat hermetic (Bergman again) portrait, merging joys and sorrows, of a woman torn between her family's expectations and her own wishes and the social/cultural milieu that mostly determined both. SOFIE is quietly, effectively feminist, interestingly
depicting the upsurge of Sofie's life-force with Hojby and her subsequent forced marriage to Jonas. The picture falters only in the last, more predictable half hour, as Sofie re-discovers her Jewish heritage; the section unfortunately includes her son's seemingly endless bar mitzvah. The sole
grandstanding moment in Ullmann's assured direction is a marvelously operatic, expressionistic moment when the awkwardly nude Sofie dashes across a room from her increasingly demented husband to consummate her affair with his brother. There's not a male director alive who could have so
provocatively and satisfyingly conceived and staged this scene. Ullmann and her producer Lars Kolvig assembled a splendid cast, and Ullmann gave them full rein. Karen-Lise Mynster, unknown in the US but probably Denmark's finest young stage and screen actress, is simply brilliant as Sofie. She's
in nearly every scene, and her performance effortlessly spans the script's decades. Fine too is another nine-film Bergman veteran, Erland Josephson, as Sofie's father. Even Torben Zeller renders his thankless role of the nearly intolerable Jonas almost sympathetic. Carrying through the rather
downbeat themes, the movie is technically precise, although never opulent, with flawless period design by Peter Hoimark (THE EMIGRANTS) and costumes by Jette Termann, captured in the nuanced photography by Jorgen Persson (ELVIRA MADIGAN, PELLE THE CONQUEROR, MY LIFE AS A DOG, BEST INTENTIONS).
Ullmann unashamedly made SOFIE as an art-house project, and it received predictably scant distribution in the US. (Nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: Noted actress Liv Ullmann stepped behind the camera for this film, an exceptional if demanding, decades-spanning portrait of a Danish woman struggling to live her own life instead of fulfilling the expectations of others. The movie begins in 1886, in Co… (more)